FRONT ROYAL — Skyline’s football players are in new territory, and its a beautiful change of scenery.
The Hawks, who haven’t had a winning season since 2014, have already matched last season’s win total with a pair of victories to start 2019, and they are 2-0 to start the season for the first time since 2012.
Those wins include a 53-42 Week 1 win over first-year school Independence and a 32-7 victory last week over a Broadway team playing for a new head coach and trying to make its own climb back toward a winning culture.
The competition figures to ramp up considerably for Skyline in the coming weeks, starting with tonight’s home game against Class 4 James Wood. The Hawks, members of Class 3, also travel to Class 4 Handley in Week 4 and host two-time defending Class 1 state champ Riverheads in Week 6.
“We’ve put a lot of work into this entire program,” Hawks senior receiver/defensive back Michael Davis said on Wednesday. “Over the summer, the summer weightlifting, the 7-on-7s, we’ve put so much effort into this that 2-0, that’s what we’re expecting. Now, these next three games we’ve got to show this is what we are now. We can go 3-0, we can go 4-0, we’ve just got to be able to prove it, and that’s why we’re in here working hard every single day.”
The key to Skyline’s early success in 2019, head coach Heath Gilbert said, has been increased effectiveness across the board. Several years ago, the Hawks had a high-powered offense but didn’t have the defense to match it. The past two seasons, Gilbert felt the Hawks had taken strides on the defensive end but didn’t produce enough offensively. This season Skyline has seemed to put both sides of the ball together for the first two weeks.
And they’re confident.
“We all feel good,” junior two-way lineman Will Wolf said. “It’s definitely a different feeling in the locker room when you walk in and you’re 2-0. Everybody’s ready to go. It’s a different feeling on Friday night now. The past few years it’s been ‘we don’t want to play, we’re gonna get killed,’ but when we step on the field (this season) we’re all ready to go. We’re all excited to play. It’s definitely awesome to be 2-0. These next three games are the hardest three games of our schedule, so we’ve got to be mentally prepared and ready to go on Friday night.”
Skyline’s recent matchups against Wood (0-1) have been competitive.
The Colonels hold a three-game winning streak over Skyline, but those last two victories have come by six points each. In last year’s meeting in Winchester, Wood held on for a 20-14 win when former Hawk quarterback Chase Tasker had his fourth-and-goal pass tipped in the end zone and intercepted as time expired.
Gilbert said on Wednesday he anticipates the same type of matchup with the Colonels this season, meaning the little things could take on even more importance in a game that may be decided by one score.
“You can’t have no mental mistakes,” Wolf said. “(Against Broadway) we had nine personal fouls costing 85 yards — some of the penalties offset. That’s what’s gonna shoot us in the foot. If we’re all ready to go, we do all of our assignments, everything’s good and sharp, I think it’ll be good.”
Gilbert hopes that Skyline’s biggest area of improvement — the team’s running game — will help the Hawks turn the tables on Wood in 2019. Skyline’s rushing attack was nonexistent against the Colonels in 2018 and, for the most part, for the entirety of last season, when the Hawks amassed just 519 yards in 10 games.
Through two games the Hawks, who had nearly 400 yards rushing in Week 1, are approaching 500 yards on the ground.
“James Wood last year played us with five guys in the box and we’re a read-option team, so we’re only blocking four of those five, and we still couldn’t do it,” Gilbert said. “We had like two yards rushing last year against them, so they were able to play six on our four (receivers) in coverage. It was a great game plan for them because we weren’t effective enough to run the ball. Hopefully this year they respect our run more. If they don’t and they go five in the box, we better be able to run the football. If not, they’re gonna beat us.”
Skyline has been more than just a running team, though, and the playmaking ability of junior receiver Marion Haley has the attention of Wood head coach Ryan Morgan. Haley, a transfer from Warren County, has scored seven touchdowns in two games and has been an electric target for sophomore quarterback Blake Appleton.
Morgan said tackling — something his Colonels struggled with in a 49-12 loss to Sherando in Week 1 — was a big focus during Wood’s Week 2 bye week, and he said the Colonels have to be particularly sharp when trying to corral Haley.
“He’s somebody that can do a little bit of everything,” Morgan said. “... They use him all over the field. If he gets some open room, he looks like he was shot of a cannon.”
Gilbert held similar praise for Wood running back Will Crowder, a speedster who ran for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 10 carries in last year’s meeting.
“Not only is he fast, he’s 185 pounds, so if you don’t tackle him with some shoulder pads he’s gonna run through any arm tackling and then he’s gonna be down the rail in a heartbeat and we’re just gonna be watching him run,” Gilbert said. “Hopefully, we play good team defense and contain him because every time he touches it, he’s a threat to go the distance.”
Crowder and fellow senior Sam Adkins combined to rush for nearly 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. An experienced Wood backfield, which mustered only 73 yards rushing on 24 carries against Sherando, also returned 2018 starters Jackson Turner, a fullback, and quarterback Carson Hoberg, both seniors.
“They do have a good rushing attack,” said Wolf, a starter in a Skyline defensive front that held Broadway to less than 10 yards rushing last week. “They have a few guys that if you let them go in open space, they can really turn it on, they can make you pay. If you keep everything contained, stay in your assignments, stay in your lanes, we’re gonna be all right against that rushing attack.”
Winchester Star sports reporter Robert Niedzwiecki contributed to this story.