Sherando faces rival Liberty in Homecoming game tonight

Sherando's T.J. Washington finds a hole during their game Sept. 7 in Broadway. The Warriors host Liberty tonight in a rematch of last year's Region 4C championship game. Rich Cooley/Daily file

STEPHENS CITY – In retrospect, Sherando head football coach Bill Hall felt he didn’t do enough to make his players understand the mentality it takes to play a program like Liberty’s prior to their regular-season matchup on Sept. 22 of last year, which was their first game against the Eagles since 2014.That’s not a problem this year heading into tonight’s 7 p.m. Homecoming game between the two Class 4 Northwestern District squads at Arrowhead Stadium in Stephens City.

“You can come out here and say every week’s the same, but this week’s definitely a little bit different, just with what happened last year,” Sherando senior lineman Nick Corbit said. “Liberty’s a really good school. It’s going to be a really fun game.”

Liberty (2-2, 0-0 district this year) and Sherando (4-0, 1-0) engaged in two hard-fought battles in Bealeton in 2017. The Eagles won 31-28 in the regular-season win on Sept. 22, but the Warriors won the more important matchup, taking the Region 4C championship game 33-21 for a 13-10 lead in their all-time series. That playoff contest marked the fifth time the two squads have met in the playoffs, with four of those games coming since 2012.

Liberty only brought back six starters from last’s year team. None of the Eagles returning starting offensive or defensive linemen are back, and they lost most of their top backs and receivers.

But Liberty is coming off a 54-31 win over Chancellor after losing two consecutive games to Courtland and Culpeper County, and the Eagles will undoubtedly be fired up because of last year as well.

Those 54 points that the Eagles scored last week are 22 more than what Sherando has given up all season.

After a 65-6 win against James Wood to open the season on Aug. 24, Warriors senior quarterback Hunter Entsminger couldn’t help but marvel at how fast Sherando was on defense, a continuation of what he had seen from the team in practice over the preceding few weeks.

Corbit and Sherando coach Bill Hall said it was difficult to compare the Warriors’ speed to past years, but there’s no question it’s been making a difference. Sherando is giving up only 161.3 yards per game and 3.4 yards per play.

“I think our defense is going a good job of flying to the ball and pursuing the ball,” Hall said. “I think it’s about meeting the expectation that we have as a unit and they have individually to get to the ball. That’s something we’re always working at. As good as you’ve been, we can always get better at it.”

At the end of Monday’s practice, the Warriors pushed themselves through a series of sprints and shouted encouragement to each other as they did so.

“In practice, we know we have to pick it up,” said Sherando junior safety free safety Jabril Hayes, who has two interceptions this year, including one that he returned 50 yards for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage in last week’s 56-14 win against Loudoun Valley. “If we don’t, we’ll get left behind [by other teams].”

Hayes said “it’s exhilarating” being part of what Sherando’s defense has done to this point. The Warriors have eight takeaways this year, three defensive touchdowns, and a safety.

“We have people like [linebacker] Payne Bauer and [defensive end] Nick Corbit and [linebackers] McKinley Dean and JoJo Doleman rushing the quarterback, so he has to get rid of the ball quick,” Hayes said. “Once the ball is in the air, all of our defensive backs are attacking it, and we just make plays.”

Making Liberty quarterback Raymond Morton as uncomfortable as the Warriors did last year will go a long way toward a successful outcome.

Morton completed only 6 of 17 passes for 16 yards and a touchdown in last year’s playoff loss, but he can make plays with his arm and his legs. He completed 7 of 15 passes for 141 yards and four TDs and rushed for 79 yards and a TD on 10 carries in last week’s win over Chancellor. Morton can also be prone to mistakes. He had 316 yards passing and 67 yards and a TD rushing in a 28-17 loss to Courtland, but he also had three interceptions.

“He can really sling the ball down the field,” Hayes said. “Our safeties and our corners will have to make sure we’re getting really deep down the field and attack the ball. He can also run outside of the pocket, so we’ll have to make sure all our defensive linemen and linebackers are keying on that.”

Hall said while Liberty’s offensive line isn’t as experienced as last year, the Eagles do have good size up front with five players listed at 250 pounds or above on the roster. Wide receiver Justin Lawson and running back Freddie Harris are among Liberty’s top playmakers on offense.

Liberty’s defense is giving up 22 points per game and features a 4-2-5 formation.

The Warriors have had a couple situations where teams have given them different looks than they were expecting. Hall says quarterback Hunter Entsminger (31 of 38 for 699 yards, nine TDs, and zero interceptions) and the rest of the offense has done a good job of adjusting.

“[On our pass concepts], we have to make sure we have our eyes right, make sure everybody’s on the same page, all five people in the package,” Hall said.