WOODSTOCK — Before the start of every high school football season, Central head coach Mike Yew holds a meeting for all of the eighth-graders set to join the Falcons’ junior varsity program that year. Sometimes those meetings stick with Yew years after they happen.
Such was the case nearly 10 years ago when a talented group of eighth-graders — who would go on to earn the first playoff win in program history in 2011 and come within a win of the state semifinals in each of the next two seasons — convened at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School.
Yew would say several years later that he knew then that that group of Falcons was destined for great things on the football field. He’s saying the same things now about Central’s latest group of seniors.
Much like the 2009 meeting with the eighth-graders, Yew could see a bright future in store for those who met with their future head coach in 2014. As he looked around the room at those in attendance, Yew saw a future starting quarterback, running backs, a fullback, receivers, a tight end and several linemen, many of which would start on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Yew remembers thinking, “Man, there’s one of everything in here.”
“You’re always excited,” the 12-year head coach said recently of leaving a preseason meeting with such a realization.
“Within an hour I probably text my coaches and say ‘this is gonna be a heckuva group coming in,’ and that’s probably where we were 10 years ago and that’s where we were five years ago.”
The latest crop of talented Falcons met Yew’s expectations. As freshmen, this year’s senior class went undefeated at the junior varsity level, setting the stage for a three-year run with the varsity team that will go down as the most successful period in program history.
Central went 9-3 in 2016, earning the Bull Run District title and picking up a playoff win. The following season the Falcons went 11-1, defended their district championship, grabbed another playoff win and posted the only undefeated regular season in school history.
The 2018 season was one of Central’s best. The Falcons finished the year 11-2, won the district for a third straight time and won two playoff games before falling to East Rockingham in the Region 2B championship game.
Central’s senior class finished its varsity career with a record of 31-6. Any pressure to deliver on the high expectations they handled well.
“I guess there’s always a challenge to (not) underachieve but I don’t think that was ever an issue with us,” Yew, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2018 Football Coach of the Year, said. “... This group left here as the winningest group to ever play football at Central High School, so I think that speaks for itself.”
Central’s 2018 success, as it was the previous season, was built on an offense that could be both explosive and physically punishing and a stout defense.
Excluding a win by forfeit over Park View (Sterling), a team Central had pummelled, 75-21 in 2017, the Falcons averaged 38.5 points per game.
They had a do-it-all offensive weapon in Kyle Clanton, who had 753 yards receiving, 674 yards rushing and scored 30 total touchdowns (eight non-offensive) and was named first team all-state. They also had a 1,100-yard rusher in Shane Watson; a more-than-capable backup in Hunter Mullins, who filled in admirably after Watson went down with an ankle injury and missed the final two playoff games; a 1,200-yard passer and three-year starter at quarterback (Zeb Dyer) and a veteran offensive line led by all-state linemen Declan Franklin and Grayson Manning.
On defense, Central posted five shutouts and held opponents to 13.8 points per game, tallied 21 sacks and forced 13 interceptions. The Falcons boasted the Bull Run District and Region 2B Defensive Player of the Year in Declan Franklin, also a first team all-state defensive lineman, and two other all-state defenders in Clanton and linebacker Zach Abrams.
That level of talent carried the Falcons to eight straight wins to open the season before a loss to now-three-time defending Class 1 state champ Riverheads halted their bid for a second straight undefeated regular season.
Central recovered to beat rival Strasburg in back-to-back weeks, including once in the regional quarterfinals, and blasted Luray, 63-21, in the semis. The Falcons’ run finally came to an end with a 44-29 loss to East Rock in the regional championship, stopping Central one win short of its first state semifinal appearance once again.
Though the Falcons had state title aspirations, Yew said he felt his team lived up to the high expectations put on it heading into the 2018 season.
“I do,” Yew said. “Everybody wants a state title and only one team wins it a year, and here’s the reality, and this is the truth: I thought for the first time in three years, because of injuries (in past seasons) and different things, we were honestly playing our best football at the end of the year this year, and we lost to a team that just simply outscored us.
“This year we went into (the regional championship) game loaded, everyone playing, everyone healthy and it was what it was,” he added. “It was a lot easier to deal with than like (the 2017 regional semifinal loss to Robert E. Lee, in which Central was missing three starters), going ‘what if?’”
The graduation losses will be extraordinary heading into next season, as the Falcons will lose their leaders in nearly every major statistical category. Yew said he and the rest of the program turned their sights toward 2019 almost immediately after the season-ending loss to East Rock on Nov. 23.
“We’ve already started talking to some of the kids. I texted a lot of the underclassmen on the Monday after we lost and just said we’re not gonna get to work right now, but in two weeks we’re gonna start back up lifting and this is your team now. And that’s the way it’s gotta always be,” Yew said before listing a group of returning players whose time it is to lead the program. “... It’s an ongoing cycle. We don’t recruit. We don’t have a chance to recruit. It’s not like college where you can kind of bring in another class. We play the cards we’re dealt and at Central we’ve been blessed. The last 12 years, we’ve been dealt some pretty good cards.”