Stonewall Jackson’s football team took baby steps toward becoming a more competitive squad in 2019 and will aim to build on that progress this spring under a new head coach.
The Generals’ 2-8 record last season doesn’t look like much, but it marked the first time they’d won two games in a season since 2012 and ended a string of three consecutive no-win campaigns. Kyle Kokkonen, a former General, has since taken the reins of the program and has been tasked with guiding it through the COVID-19 pandemic and into the condensed spring season.
Kokkonen said last week that Stonewall’s primary goal is to be more competitive as often as it can this spring. They will have fewer chances to do so with the regular season limited to just six games under the Virginia High School League’s condensed-season model, and conducting a football season in the middle of a pandemic is sure to present some unique obstacles, but the Generals would love to top their 2019 win total this spring.
“Of course we want to win every opportunity, and so every time we don’t it’s gonna still be a big letdown regardless of the other stuff that we’ve got going on,” said Kokkonen, whose team opens its Bull Run District-only schedule at home against Strasburg on Saturday. “But I’m trying to remind the other kids that we’re not the only ones dealing with this, and if other schools are dealing with it too, then we’re not at a disadvantage. With all the stuff going on, I think we can find bright spots regardless of how the season turns out, but we’re still looking to kind of go 100% and see what’s the best finish we can come up with.”
Stonewall needs to improve on both sides of the ball – the Generals have averaged less than 9 points per game in three of the past four seasons, and their 40 points allowed per contest last season was actually the team’s best mark in four years – and has some pieces make that happen.
Senior Rion Dennison has been the Generals’ most productive offensive weapon over the past two seasons (he’s accounted for 1,183 yards of offense while playing running back, quarterback and receiver at various points in that span) and enters the spring as Stonewall’s starting running back.
Another senior running back, Austin Ritchie, has rushed for 330 yards over the past two seasons (he also passed for 263 yards as Stonewall’s starting QB in 2018), junior Jacob Lemon has a full season as the Generals’ starting quarterback under his belt, and seniors Colin Vresics and Jarrett Lonas and junior Hunter Frazier are “backbones” on the offensive line that the Generals can lean on this season, Kokkonen said.
Stonewall, which hasn’t passed the football much in recent seasons while primarily running the triple-option, also has athleticism at receiver with the additions of senior Brayden Hovatter and Jesse Lemon, though both lack varsity football experience.
Kokkonen said the Generals would use a power-running game offensively.
“We want to find a way to take advantage of the athletes that we have, so whatever wrinkles we can put in to take advantage of the skill that we have, we’re gonna do that too,” he said, adding that “we’ll see how that goes” in regard to potentially passing the football more this spring. Lack of preseason practice time due to weather has limited the opportunities for Stonewall’s QBs to work on getting their timing down with their receivers.
“That might be one of the things that might get hurt a little bit for us with the lack of time we’ve had to practice,” Kokkonen said. “I think we’re gonna try and do it game-by-game. I don’t want to throw just for the sake of throwing, but if we see things we can take advantage of, we’ll try to do that.”
Many of the same names from the offensive side of the ball will be asked to play major roles on defense, too.
Vresics, a defensive lineman, was Stonewall’s third-leading tackler (44) last season and was a 2019 second-team all-district pick alongside Ritchie, whom Kokkonen said will play safety and possibly some linebacker this spring. Dennison, a linebacker, made 35 stops and had a team-high three sacks last season.
Kokkonen noted that players like sophomore Carter Fleming, junior Hunter Rinker and seniors Hunter Cowart and Cameron Martinez (who wrestled at the Class 2 state tournament at 195 pounds on Monday and will join the football team late) will also contribute on defense for Stonewall this season.
“Especially this year, a lot of our guys are gonna have to learn multiple positions,” Kokkonen said. “And then from there, guys can start moving depending on what we need and where they fit in better. Unfortunately, we haven’t had near as much as time with our defense as I would’ve liked, so that’s still kind of in the works.”
Despite the hurdles thrown in front of Stonewall’s football team this preseason – including frequent bouts with Mother Nature – Kokkonen said he was encouraged by the Generals’ resiliency.
“It has been so crazy and at times really, really frustrating, but I haven’t really felt that much from the kids. They’ve done a really good job of just kind of taking whatever they get,” Kokkonen said. “I think just the opportunity to play football where we didn’t think we would have that before has really kind of taken them through some of that and made it a little bit easier to handle the other stuff. But so far, we’ve been doing Zoom meetings and all that stuff, but when they come to practice they’ve been great. I actually couldn’t ask for any more.”