FRONT ROYAL — The message Skyline’s football coaches delivered to their players all week was clear: tonight’s non-district game against Riverheads represents a chance for the Hawks to claim a signature win.

Riverheads, the winner of the last three Virginia High School League Class 1 state championships, travels to Front Royal to take on Class 3 Skyline in the first-ever meeting between the two teams.

Skyline (2-2), which is at the tail end of what the Hawks consider their toughest three-game stretch of the season, carries a two-game losing streak into the matchup against a Gladiators team that is 4-0 and has reeled off 15 straight wins dating back to last season.

Under longtime head coach Robert Casto — who retired after leading the Gladiators to their sixth state title in 2018 only to return in May after his replacement abruptly resigned — Riverheads has won 10 games or more in 10 straight seasons and is 223-42 since 1998, Casto’s third year with the program.

“It’s an opportunity to get a big win,” Hawks head coach Heath Gilbert said of the opportunity that awaits his squad in its final non-district game of the regular season. “It’s a team that has a lot of clout in our state. Even though they’re a single-A team they’re ranked high. I think MaxPreps has them in the top 50. It’s a good program. They deserve all the respect that they get because they don’t look like single-A kids, that’s for sure.”

Skyline, coming off a bye week after a 60-25 loss to Class 4 Handley in Week 4, had an extra week to prepare for Riverheads, and Gilbert said on Tuesday that all of the Hawks’ focus during bye was on the Gladiators. Gilbert added that the off week even allowed the Hawks to scout Riverheads in person during the Gladiators’ 55-15 win over Colonial Beach last week.

Riverheads, which has traditionally competed against Class 2 competition as a member of the Shenandoah District, boasts a pair of wins over Class 2 schools already this season with victories over Glenvar (38-21 on Sept. 6) and East Rockingham (52-6 on Sept. 13).

The Gladiators are averaging 48.5 points per game this season, and they have scored fewer than 35 points in a game just once since a 28-0 loss to East Rock in Week 3 of last season. Riverheads’ offensive playbook isn’t deep Gilbert said, but the Gladiators’ double-wing offense is wildly effective.

It’s so effective, in fact, that Gilbert said the Hawks haven’t seen Riverheads’ punt team on any of the game films they’ve studied.

“They’re very efficient,” Gilbert said. “They’re great on their aiming points on their blocking scheme, and if we aren’t disciplined and we run upfield and we give up our chest, we’re gonna get smacked, there’s no question. We have got to be physical, we have to do the technique, our eyes and vision focus needs to be on our keys or they’re gonna be in behind you, the few times they throw it are gonna be touchdowns because we don’t have our eyes right. But if we can apply a few things, ‘if they do this, it means this, this and this,’ their playbook becomes three plays. We have to take that, and coach (Steve) Burton did a great job, our defensive coordinator, he made a cheat sheet for them and tested all of the kids (Tuesday). Obviously we come out here for the ultimate test in practice and execute, and then the final is gonna be on Friday. We’ve got to figure out if we’re learning or not.”

In two blowout losses to James Wood and Handley over the past two games, Skyline allowed 11 touchdowns of 18 yards or more. Gilbert said against Handley the Hawks simply couldn’t match the Judges’ athleticism on the outside, and he took the blame for putting Skyline’s defenders in a position they weren’t ready for as the game plan challenged Judges first-year quarterback Malachi Imoh to beat them with his arm.

Tonight’s challenge figures to be more physical in nature against a Riverheads offense that features five players with at least 200 yards rushing. Junior running back Zac Smiley leads the Gladiators with 79 carries for 537 yards and 11 touchdowns in four games.

“They’re very physical,” Hawks senior defensive end/tight end Ethan Gue said, “and they’ve been running this (offense) since they’ve been in midget, so they know the plays, they know how to run them, they know how to execute them. They’re just a physical team. As long as we … out-physical them and keep our technique, we’ll hold their offense to a few scores.”

Skyline’s offense has moved the ball well this season — the Hawks lead area teams in total offense (364 yards per game) — and is averaging 31 points per contest.

Sophomore quarterback Blake Appleton has passed for 552 yards, eight touchdowns and an interception, and Darion Santucci (272 yards rushing, four TDs), Logan Maiatico (214 yards, two TDs) and David Carter (194 yards, two TDs) each are averaging over 6 yards per carry this season.

Riverheads is holding opponents to 14.3 points per game.

“Even if the scoreboard doesn’t go our way,” Gue said, “(if) we play well, we stay as a team, we’ll carry that momentum into the next district games, which would be big.”

Skyline dives into Class 3 Northwestern District play after tonight’s contest, starting with a trip to district newcomer Central next week.

Carter, a linebacker who leads Skyline with 31 tackles, said the Hawks’ past three games gave them a chance to test themselves against top competition.

“We’ve just got to keep on pushing ourselves and try to get to the top,” Carter said.

“(A win) would help us out a lot. We want to at least go .500 coming into the districts, so a big win for us would help.”

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com