FRONT ROYAL – Heath Gilbert knew his program was turning around in January.

The Skyline head football coach saw the hard work and dedication his team was showing in the early offseason and knew things were going in the right direction.

“The guys were in there working,” Gilbert said of the offseason. “It’s one thing to say you’re going to do it and then, OK I don’t see you for months and then you show up in August – we’re not changing the culture. You got to invest. If you invest your time and sweat, it’s a whole lot more difficult to quit on some game on Friday night because you just put in hours of work coming into it. They worked hard in the offseason and it paid off.”

Two years ago the Hawks lost several close games, in which Gilbert said they could have been 7-3, but instead they finished 4-7. Last year the Hawks finished 2-8 for the second time in three years. This year Skyline went 6-6 and advanced to the Region 3B semifinals.

Gilbert, The Northern Virginia Daily’s Football Coach of the Year, said it says a lot about his players that they didn’t let the last few seasons discourage them and came together to turn things around.

“For these boys not to give up the faith and work as hard as they did in the offseason is a tribute to their character and what they wanted to do as a football team,” Gilbert said. “I can’t say enough about their attitude and desire to change the culture because the culture is what we define it. It’s what we make it, it’s not what coach Gilbert says it is. It’s what we say it’s going to be. We have a plan and then we are all following it and we all are doing what we need to do to be successful. That gave us an opportunity to put together a decent season, and obviously we didn’t win all of our games but we were much more competitive in every game this year.”

Gilbert said there were four players who really led the way to get the whole team on board to change the culture and they weren’t all seniors.

“(Junior) Will Wolf, and (sophomore quarterback) Blake (Appleton) (and seniors) Ethan (Gue) and (Anthony) Domino were that core that pulled all the groups together,” Gilbert said. “I got my senior group, I got my lineman group, I got my skill guys – all those guys. They got them all together to make sure that we’re changing the culture, and we weren’t going to just talk about it and say it. It’s not just something we got on the back of our shirts – we’re going to do it. That’s what they decided to do. It doesn’t need to be a six-year process to change a culture. It can happen in an offseason if you’re all willing to work and it’s got to continue. We think we can do some good things next year. But if we think we’re nice and we don’t do the work in the weight room in the offseason, we’re going to step backward and that’s the last thing this group wants to do.”

The Hawks started with two solid wins over Independence (53-42) and Broadway (32-7) but then lost three straight games. Instead of dropping their heads the Hawks battled back and won three of their last five games to finish at .500 in the regular season.

“I think every week even if we lost we put up 300 yards of offense, so at least we were competitive out there,” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t just a total beatdown. It was something to hang your hat on to keep the process going. We lost three games in a row but these guys didn’t shut down. Because of that, they kept working hard. You could see it in the weight room. You could see it on the practice field. They didn’t turn it off. They knew if they kept doing what they were doing, because they saw the positives even in the losses, that we could come out of this.”

The two losses during the second half of the season came to district rivals William Monroe and Brentsville. The Hawks avenged the William Monroe loss with a 42-20 win in the Region 3B quarterfinals of the playoffs. The loss to Class 3 Northwestern District champion Brentsville, 34-28 on Nov. 1, was a tough one. The Hawks had a chance to win the game, with the ball at the Brentsville 15-yard line, and couldn’t come up with one last big play. A win would have given the Hawks a share of the district title.

Skyline lost to Goochland in the Region 3B semifinals, 56-22, but the Hawks should return a lot of their players from this year’s squad.

Appleton threw for 2,084 yards on 148-of-250 passing with 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Junior wide receiver Marion ‘Budder’ Haley had 70 receptions for 1,149 yards and 18 scores.

Gilbert said one thing that has helped his program has been partnering with Frisby’s Agility, Speed and Strength training, which is run out of Winchester by James Frisby. Gilbert said they will sit down with them before the offseason starts and tell them what areas they are looking to improve in and then FAST comes up with a training plan to help them improve.

“They helped us kind of validate what we’re doing in the weight room and speed and conditioning,” Gilbert said. “Because as soon as you put that label with it because all the boys know about FAST and everything. So then they’re like “OK, this is cool,’ and they want to be part of it. So that was a great move.”

Gilbert said adding Richard Redwood to his coaching staff has also helped over the last couple of years. Redwood, a former Shenandoah University player, works with Skyline’s players in the offseason to help improve their speed.

Another key ingredient to Skyline’s turnaround has been what Gilbert calls ‘the circle’, which is the bond between the players, coaches and parents.

Gilbert said it starts with his coaching staff, Steve Burton, Steve Haines, Tony Clingerman, Marty Haley, Tyler Settle, Dick Allanson and Redwood. Gilbert said the parents have been amazing, especially when it comes to fundraisers. He said the program has $11,000 saved up right now due to sponsorships and fundraisers, mostly spearheaded by Angela Appleton, Blake’s mother. He said they have plans to use some of the money for making the atmosphere at games even better for next year.

He said last but not least in “the circle” are the players who have dedicated themselves to changing the culture and have bonded and become closer through their hard work and commitment.

Gilbert said they have to replace eight seniors, which will not be easy. Skyline seniors Ethan Gue, David Carter and Anthony Domino were the heart of the Hawks’ defense and Gilbert said it will be a challenge to replace them.

Skyline’s junior varsity team went 21-4 over the last two seasons and Gilbert said expectations for next season are high. However, he said it all starts in January just like it did last year.

“We’re really excited about what we have coming back, what we have coming up,” he said. “We have some talented kids and we’re anxious to see where it goes, but that anxious for me isn’t in August, it’s in January because that tells me the truth. Because if they’re in there in January I know we’re going to put the work in, we’re going to be OK when we play in August – but it starts in January.”

– Contact Tommy Keeler Jr. at tkeeler@nvdaily.com