STRASBURG – A football season that began with high aspirations saw Strasburg’s hunt for a Bull Run District title first diminish with losses to Page County and Clarke County and then altogether disappear when the Rams let one get away in a loss to Luray in the regular-season finale.
One win has cranked up the good vibes once again for the Rams.
Strasburg, the fifth seed in the Region 2B playoffs, exacted revenge against No. 4 Luray in the quarterfinal round, dominating the Bulldogs in the second half to run away with a 39-21 victory. It was the Rams’ first playoff win in three years and seems to have brought new energy to a squad that was aiming high when the 2019 season first kicked off in August.
“It shows that we have the potential,” Rams senior running back/safety Trevor Sager said on Tuesday evening of Strasburg’s quarterfinal win, its first victory over Luray in four tries. “We showed what we have. I think personally we have more, but it’s made me proud to see my teammates and everybody work together and play hard all four quarters. It shows that we want to be there and we want to keep going.”
Strasburg’s prize for that victory? A date with No. 1 Stuarts Draft (10-1) in tonight’s Region 2B semifinals.
It’s not a stretch to say the Rams (8-3) are likely considered the underdogs by many. Even Strasburg head coach Mark Roller admitted that if the game was played on paper, because of records alone, his team wouldn’t stand a chance. But the Rams do have some momentum, and they’re hoping that carries into what will be the first-ever matchup between Strasburg and Draft.
“With that momentum and with that confidence,” Rams senior lineman Alec Campbell said, “we need people to show out and show up, not just talk it and then not show it.”
Roller, who’s trying to lead the Rams past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001, said on Tuesday that his squad has done well to carry the mojo built up from the Luray win into the first two days of preparation for its next opponent.
“We’re at a point now where we’re just playing and we’re enjoying things, to be here,” Roller said. “They’re excited, and if you don’t feel like you have a chance then you can’t win, and I think our guys feel like they have a chance and I think that’s the mentality to take.”
Draft could prove to be Strasburg’s toughest challenge yet.
The Cougars, a team that also suffered a loss in its regular-season finale, roll into the semifinals coming off a 23-6 quarterfinal win over No. 8 Buffalo Gap, a game in which Draft had just five offensive possessions, including one that ran out the final 7 ½ minutes of the contest.
The 2019 campaign has been quite the turnaround for the Cougars, who won just three games last year but rebounded to reach 10 wins for the second time in six seasons under head coach Nathan Floyd. Stuarts Draft’s lone loss this season came to three-time defending Class 1 state champion Riverheads in a 49-14 thumping two weeks ago.
“They have a lot of young kids. I think they only have five seniors and it seems like they work well together,” Roller said. “They run the offense pretty good and their defense gets around to the ball. They’ve got some real good linebackers. I think when you have some of that stuff, and I think they work well as a team. I don’t think there’s one single individual that you can point out and say this kid is the difference-maker. I think they all work well together and I think they’ve got a bunch of them.”
Offensively, Draft runs the pistol wing-T with two running backs lined up behind junior quarterback Henry Cooke. Roller said the Cougars have the ability to hurt teams in the passing game – Cooke has thrown for over 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and receivers Freddie Watkins and Jo’-El Howard were first team All-Shenandoah District picks — but the Strasburg coach likened Draft’s offense to that of Luray’s run-heavy T-formation.
Sophomore tailback Aaron Nice, another district first-teamer, is a 1,000-yard rusher who has scored 22 touchdowns on the ground this season, but Roller said the Cougars are balanced in their running game and don’t lean too heavily on one ball-carrier. Fellow Draft running backs Dustyn Fitzgerald and Blake Roach each have over 500 yards rushing.
Campbell and Sager both expect the Cougars to run the football, at least until the Rams, who are allowing 163 yards rushing per game this season, show they can stop it.
Strasburg will be without starting linebacker/running back Da’Neil Holliday for the fifth straight game, with Roller confirming on Tuesday that the senior is out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury.
Strasburg has been stout defensively most of the season and is limiting opponents to 239.8 yards and 15.6 points per game in 2019, setting the stage for a potential slugfest tonight against a Draft team allowing just 13.4 points per contest.
“If they make a mistake, we have to take advantage of it and make the most of what they give us,” Sager said. “From what I’ve seen, they don’t make a whole lot of mistakes. They’re pretty well fundamental. They’re a good team. We’re just gonna have to make sure we’re focused and paying attention to every little detail to pick up some of those mistakes and capitalize on those.”
Strasburg’s offense – outside of two drives that bogged down deep in Luray territory in the regular-season finale – is coming off back-to-back weeks in which it’s moved the ball almost at will against the Bulldogs, and on the year the Rams are averaging 33.7 points and 300.6 yards per game.
Roller said Draft’s defense, which has allowed 21 or more points just three times this season, features some good linebackers – Cougars senior Kasey Branch was named the Shenandoah District Defensive Player of the Year – and sound team tackling. And as has been the case for much of the season, Strasburg will be at a size disadvantage upfront, though Campbell said the Rams relish those chances against physically superior opponents.
Strasburg turned last week’s regional quarterfinal into a one-sided affair in the second half, but Sager said he doesn’t anticipate such a contest against the No. 1 seed. Campbell added that the Rams can’t afford to take time to settle in and find a groove against the Cougars.
“Everybody’s gonna have to play the whole game,” Sager said. “I don’t think it’s gonna be a one-sided thing. We’re gonna have to play all four quarters. It may come down to one play, who knows. We’ve just got to grit our teeth and make sure we’re focused and make sure we’re physical because last week was really physical. We’ve got to keep doing that. We’ve got to keep that up to continue that this week. Play physical and just pretty much play how we can play.”
The regional semifinal game will be the first for many of Strasburg’s players who weren’t on the varsity team when the Rams were soundly beaten by Goochland to end their 2016 season.
“It’s gonna be tense,” Campbell said. “It’s gonna be a little nerve-wracking coming in there because we’ve never played Stuarts Draft before. But I feel like we’re gonna play a solid game.”