FRONT ROYAL — The 2021 condensed spring football season, for all its oddities, was quite normal in hindsight compared to what Skyline has had to deal with already this fall.
The Hawks, who avoided the dreaded COVID-19 shutdown in the spring, didn’t even make it to Week 3 of this season before sweeping quarantines sidelined half their players and forced the cancellation of last week’s game against James Wood.
Skyline, which only just got all of its players back on Wednesday, will return to action on Saturday afternoon with a road trip to take on unbeaten Handley. It’ll be the first game since Aug. 27 for the Hawks, who had a Week 2 bye.
As of Wednesday, the Hawks, for one reason or another, had yet to hold a week of practice in which all of its players were able to participate, head coach Heath Gilbert said.
“We’ve been talking about trying to get back in a good rhythm, winning practice habits. Obviously we want to play as well as we can but there’s a bigger picture too in front of us to make sure we’re doing things the right way,” Gilbert said before practice on Wednesday. “It’s so weird. Coaching like this is — last year was definitely more normal than this year, I guess, if you didn’t have the (COVID) issues. You just don’t know. Day to day things change, people get pulled and you’re out there with 13 kids like, ‘What in the world is going on?’”
Senior lineman Judd Schuman, one of the 13 Hawks who didn’t have to quarantine, said the last week was a “scary” period for Skyline’s seniors, most of whom are likely playing their final season of competitive football.
Without enough players to perform 11-on-11 drills in practice (Skyline’s junior varsity team was entirely shut down, Gilbert said), the Hawks had to instead put more emphasis on individual drills before reinforcements arrived on Wednesday.
That makes game planning difficult, and Gilbert added on Wednesday that he expected conditioning to be a factor as Skyline tried to get up to speed for Handley, though the Hawks were fortunate to have the extra day of prep for the Saturday contest.
Skyline (0-1), which was sloppy in its season-opening loss at home to Strasburg three weeks ago, draws a tough challenge this week in Handley (3-0), which has rolled through its first three games while outscoring opponents 134-12 and is coming off a 48-6 blasting of Spotswood.
Judges running back/defensive end Stephen Daley, a 6-2, 250-pound senior with track sprinter’s speed, was at the front of every Hawks’ mind as they prepared for this week’s game. It’s the second week in a row that Skyline has prepared for a big-play running back after spending part of the last two weeks getting ready for James Wood’s Jaden Ashby before that game was canceled.
“(Daley) has that home run threat just like Jaden does but it’s just a little bit different. It comes through a little more physical dose of football at you,” Gilbert said. “On the other side of the ball, what he’s able to do defensively, you can kind of forget about — not that we’re not gonna try to challenge them because we have to, we’ve got to see what we can do, but he’s really good at the point of attack when you run right at him. What we’re gonna try to do on that side of the ball is gonna be difficult.”
Daley, who is Handley’s leading tackler (22) and sack leader (three) on defense, has spearheaded the Judges’ double-slot offense and has rushed for 362 yards and eight touchdowns on just 28 carries, an incredible 12.9-yards-per-carry average.
“One benefit of Handley playing on Saturdays, we were able to stand right on the steps and see him walk right by,” Gilbert said of scouting the Judges’ stud running back. “We’re almost on the field and he’s running that 65-yard touchdown a couple times and seeing him just run away from kids at that size is impressive. How strong he is, his stiff arms are just ridiculous. He’s impressive.”
Bringing Daley to the ground figures to be a challenge.
“His strength and his speed just dominates on the field,” Schuman said. “It’s gonna be hard to tackle him, but we’ll do our best.”
“We have to pick our spots and understand we’ve just got to get him down,” Gilbert said. “If he’s already out in space, just do what you can to get him down. Don’t worry about it looking pretty, get tangled up and hopefully he falls over you.”
Defensively, Handley is allowing just 121.7 yards per game, while Skyline will certainly try to shake the poor ball security that burned it in its only game so far, during which the Hawks turned the ball over five times, including four times on the opponent’s side of the 50-yard line and twice in the red zone.
Judges head coach Dan Jones said Skyline’s long layoff creates a bit of an unknown situation for his squad.
“It’s going to be tough,” Jones said. “They’re going to be excited and happy to be back. It’s tough to know what they’re really going to be doing because they really haven’t been able to practice to build on anything. So, are they going to be back to what they did against Strasburg? Have they been working on new stuff? It’s just hard not having film and not knowing. I feel bad for them in a lot of ways because with two weeks off they’re going to be trying to recondition in and get reps. It’s a tough situation for them.”
Gilbert said he wanted to see the Hawks get back to a “winning practice mode and mindset” and play their best football on Saturday and let the “chips fall where they may.”
“Sometimes you play people that are better than you and you’ve got to shake their hand but know that we can still be proud because we played hard and we did our best,” Gilbert said. “I think we can be competitive with them. They obviously have some special players that can change the game in an instant, but I think we can give them a good shot.”
Winchester Star sports editor Walt Moody contributed to this story.