FRONT ROYAL – Skyline’s football team has done well to this point to keep its playoff aspirations alive, but as head coach Health Gilbert noted on Tuesday afternoon, the Hawks have “earned nothing yet.”

Last week’s impressive 44-21 win over previously unbeaten Brentsville vaulted Skyline into the Region 3B playoff picture, where the Hawks and Tigers are tied for third place and the last two playoff spots entering the final week of the Virginia High School League’s six-game regular season. The Hawks’ situation is simple – win and they’re back in the playoffs, with a share of the Class 3 Northwestern District title to boot – but the Hawks (4-1, 4-1 Northwestern) have to finish the job against cross-town rival Warren County on the road in a game that kicks off at 7 p.m. tonight.

“If we lose to Warren County, there’s no banner, there’s no playoffs. We get that plus-one game like everybody else and that’s it. That’s not what our goals are, so this game is super-important to us,” Gilbert said. “And if the script was flipped, I would want nothing more and the kids would want nothing more than to give their rival a great game and knock them out, so we know we’re going to get their best effort. They’re probably going to be able to take any chance they want (on) special teams, defense and offensively. We’ve got to be ready for everything.”

Warren County (1-4, 0-4) is out of the playoff race but is coming off its first win of the spring, a dominant 49-15 win over Park View (Sterling) on the road in which senior Bryce Post hammered the Patriots to the tune of 313 yards rushing and six touchdowns. And the Wildcats would love to spoil their rival’s recent run that has included a four-game winning streak.

“That would definitely put a smile on my face,” Post, a four-year starter and a veteran of the Warren County-Skyline rivalry, said with a laugh.

The Wildcats know they need to play a near-perfect game against a Skyline squad that is hitting on all cylinders right now (the Hawks’ last three wins have come by an average of 34 points), and they do have the benefit of carrying good vibes from a win into practice for the first time this season.

“When you don’t have success it just feels like you’re running in circles, so having that (win) last week brings some momentum forward to this game,” Wildcats first-year head coach Jerry Sarchet said.

“The kids understand that they have to play a mistake-free game to beat those guys. We respect them. We know what they’ve got there. Their offensive and defensive lines are very, very good, and we just understand that we have to do things right. We have to win each rep, like every play is a rep and treat it as such.”

Skyline has proven it has the firepower to make teams pay on either side of the ball.

The Hawks’ offense boasts plenty of weapons, with all-state receiver Marion “Budder” Haley (323 yards receiving, four touchdowns, 19 yards per catch) and fellow seniors Logan Maiatico (596 yards rushing, 11 total TDs, 9.2 yards per carry) and Darion Santucci (242 yards rushing, five TDs) leading the way while quarterback Ethan Caperton (572 yards passing, six TDs) continues to get more comfortable in his role.

Skyline showed last week it’s just as dangerous on the defensive side, where Maiatico returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns as part of a stellar five-TD performance as the Hawks surged past Brentsville in the second half.

Defensively, Sarchet said the Wildcats have to “stalemate” Skyline up front, and Post added that Warren County has to limit the big plays while slowing the game down and taking care of the football against an opportunistic Hawks defense.

“Mistakes against any team aren’t good, and especially (against) teams that will capitalize every time like the Brentsvilles or Skylines or teams like that,” Post said. “You can’t have those or you’re gonna lose the game. It should be a clean game, hopefully.”

Warren County’s single-wing offense doesn’t boast the same volume of weapons, though Gilbert said the Wildcats are a dangerous team that comes into the contest with nothing to lose. Plus, Gilbert added, “they have Bryce.”

“Bryce is an unscheduled nightmare. Things break down and he can just make things happen,” Gilbert said of the Warren County senior, who is listed at 6 feet, 235 pounds and has rushed for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns this spring while also passing for 315 yards and another score. “He’s so physically strong and he can throw it 60 yards sideways to the other corner of the end zone. He’s a problem. He always plays tough against us and we don’t expect anything else.”

While Warren County likely needs to play its best game of the season to upset its rival, Haley said Skyline needs to simply continue what has gotten the Hawks to this point.

“Going into this game we feel great,” said Haley, who attended Warren County earlier in his high school career and has experienced the rivalry from both sides. “We can beat them, we just need to come out like we have against Brentsville, Manassas Park and all them. Keep playing like that and we can, I’m pretty sure, beat them and get ready for the playoffs.

“We’ve got to be way more physical and our intensity’s got to be higher than theirs and we’ll be fine,” he added.

Post said a strong start – which the Wildcats had last week against a Park View squad that had won two straight games – would again be important against Skyline, which knocked off Warren County 39-8 in 2019 to snap the Wildcats’ four-game winning streak in the series.

“You don’t want them to have their momentum behind them to start,” Post said. “… Anything can happen, you just want to have the momentum on your side, keep your team positive and hope for the best.”

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com