WOODSTOCK — Central’s football team has yet to even play a game and its 2021 condensed spring season has already been a wild ride.
The Falcons are down a game after losing their scheduled opener due to COVID-related quarantine within Warren County’s athletics department, which put the Wildcats’ football program behind the chains in the preseason. Weather, too, has taken its toll.
Central and the other two Shenandoah County programs were kept off the practice field for a week-long period, and when they were allowed to return last Tuesday, the Falcons got two days’ worth of work in before a winter storm shut down practices again on Thursday and Friday.
Only one of Central’s practices has taken place outside, though head coach Mike Yew said last week that was by design, noting that he’d rather “teach than shiver” and that the Falcons would have ample time to acclimate to the cold weather this week in the days leading up to their opener next Sunday at home against Manassas Park.
Despite the hurdles, Yew said following practice last Wednesday that he was encouraged by the progress the Falcons have shown.
“What we’ve been able to accomplish so far has been awesome,” he said. “Our kids really have had two days in a row now (where) our timing was good, (we were) getting off the ball, executing our blocks, doing the things we need to do.”
Central enters the 2021 spring campaign, which at the moment includes just five games unless the school can find a willing and able opponent for a sixth contest, coming off a 2019 season in which it went 4-7 overall and 1-4 as a new member of Class 3 and the Northwestern District. That mark included a first-round playoff loss to James Monroe.
The Falcons have some key roles to fill, including at quarterback, where junior Ashton Baker will step into the role filled last season by Kelan Hoover, who passed for nearly 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. Baker was Hoover’s backup and the junior varsity starting quarterback in 2019.
“When we had time to do 7-on-7 this (past) summer and we could run routes, he did a good job with that,” Yew said of Baker. “He’s stepped right in right now and has done a wonderful job.”
Central will have some weapons around its new QB, which Yew said has the Falcons optimistic about that unit this spring.
Though the Falcons’ 2019 leading rusher, Alex Neff (605 yards, five TDs) has since graduated, junior Isaiah Dyer ran for 453 yards and five touchdowns his sophomore season and brings experience to the backfield. Central also returns two of its top three leading receivers from 2019 in seniors Brevin Scott (511 yards, five TDs), who recently signed with Division II Concord University, and Kamren Wells (347 yards, three TDs).
Central also returns some experience up front, with seniors Trey Grant (who said last week he weighs in at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and Tarren Wood and junior Travis Payne, all of whom were starters for the entire 2019 season or part of it. Yew added that sophomore Gaige Lewis and juniors Zach Dysart and Christian Ross were everyday JV starters last season and that Central had eight linemen last week in the mix for starting roles.
“There’s no secret to this: as everybody is, we’ll be as good as our line is,” said Yew, whose team averaged 23.6 points per game in 2019. “Our line is gonna be pretty good sized. Can we execute our blocks and stay on people? That’s gonna be our question mark. If we do that, we have a chance to be pretty decent.”
Many of those same names on the offensive line will anchor the defensive front, Yew said, with players like Dysart, Grant and Ross expected to see plenty of playing time on the defensive line. Yew noted that first-year varsity players like senior Josh Abrams and junior Jacob Walters are also in that mix. Yew described Abrams as a “weight room kid” who provides the Falcons with another big body.
Dyer, who was second on the team in tackles (85) behind then-senior Gerson Sorto Lopez (105) in 2019, leads a Central linebacker corps that Yew said will include freshman Tyler Forbes, who competed in the Class 3 state wrestling tournament at 220 pounds on Sunday and has yet to join the football team for preseason practice. Senior Nick Pulizzi, who had 63 tackles and four sacks in 2019, could play either linebacker or defensive end this spring.
Yew said sophomore linebacker Elijah Barahona has been a “bright spot” for the Falcons and is catching onto things quickly at the varsity level, and Yew added that sophomore Nazaiah Merit has gotten preseason reps at linebacker. Wells, a defensive back, could also see time at outside linebacker, Yew said.
Scott (team-high three interceptions in 2019), Wells and fellow senior Alex Lopez bring experience to the defensive backfield, and Yew said senior Jamonte Harris, sophomore James Bland and Baker add depth to that position group.
Central isn’t scheduled to play either of its Shenandoah County rivals this season because of the condensed nature of the schedule, and Yew said that has caused a minor tweak to the Falcons’ usual list of goals.
“The only thing that changed our goals this year is that we don’t play Strasburg and Stonewall,” he said. “My goals have been the same all 14 years I’ve been a head coach: to be a county champion, to make the playoffs, to be playing the best football we can play when the playoffs start. That’s our goals every year, and if we’re playing our best football this year in Week 7, hopefully that’s good enough to get us into the playoffs.”