From a scheduling standpoint, the annual Central-Strasburg football rivalry takes on a different look this season.
Tonight’s Week 4 matchup in Strasburg between the Shenandoah County rivals, one that has traditionally taken place late in the season, marks the first September meeting between the two schools since 2010. It’ll also be the first time since 2011 that the Falcons and Rams meet as non-district foes.
Neither fact has done anything to lessen the importance for both sides when they hit the field tonight in a game fought for bragging rights and playoff points. Rams’ senior quarterback Chase Hart probably put it best when he said Central vs. Strasburg is “not a normal game.”
“The thing about it is, it’s not a game you need to hype up. It will become its own thing by Friday, without any doubt,” Central head coach Mike Yew said on Tuesday. “... The whole rivalry part of it will escalate as the week goes on. It will be a great atmosphere Friday night, and if the game holds true to the way it’s been the last 10 or 12 years, it’ll be a great football game and great for the community.”
Both teams enter the much-anticipated matchup with some momentum. Strasburg, which is coming off its bye week, is 2-0 with wins over East Hardy (West Virginia) and George Mason. Central (2-1) lost its opener to Luray but has since ripped off a pair of blowout wins over Stonewall Jackson and Broadway over the past two weeks.
The Falcons, who jumped from the Virginia High School League’s Class 2 to Class 3 and from the Bull Run District to the Northwestern this season, have been largely in control of the rivalry over the last 15 years.
Since 2005, Central is 13-3 against the Rams, a record that includes two playoff wins. During their three-game winning streak against Strasburg, the Falcons have outscored the Rams 125-26.
“You can never hang your hat on the previous years,” Falcons senior lineman Camden Zirk said. “… This year we have different people playing, and I think the biggest emphasis right now is just working as a team and just doing the best we can as one and doing everything we can to win.”
Strasburg hasn’t beaten the Falcons at home since 2007, the year before Mark Roller took the reins from Glenn Proctor as head coach of the Rams.
Strasburg lost twice to Central in Woodstock in 2018, first by way of a 55-14 drubbing in the mud and muck in the regular-season finale and then in an inspired yet still insufficient effort that ended in a 28-6 loss in the first round of the Region 2B playoffs.
Despite their lack of recent success against Central, the Rams’ returning experience — and the Falcons’ lack thereof — from last season likely has many people tilting the needle in favor of Strasburg this season. Hart said the Rams are wary of listening to such noise, particularly in a matchup that has proved unpredictable at times.
“That could hurt you, being complacent,” Hart said. “If people say you’re that good then you’ll tend to not work as hard. That’s how we ignore it, just by grinding every day.”
Hart added — as did Roller — that Central, a team that was one giant question mark entering the season after undergoing massive roster turnover, has opened some eyes through the first three weeks with the way it took care of business over the last two weeks.
Though they did so against two scuffling (and winless) programs, the Falcons dominated Stonewall and Broadway while outscoring both teams by a combined score of 96-8.
“The last two weeks we kind of really found our stride and found our personality and our kids are developing an identity,” Yew said. “I think our identity right now is just playing team football. We’ve still got further to go offensively right now. Defense is definitely ahead of our offense, but at the same time our offense has done the things it’s needed to do to get the win.”
Central’s defense, in particular, has caught Roller’s eye. The Falcons have forced nine turnovers over the past two games, and in last week’s 41-0 win against Broadway, Central scored three defensive touchdowns.
“I think it’s having guys in the right place,” Roller said of what has made Central’s defense click. “And you have to have a little bit of luck and I think that’s certainly true for any team, not to take anything away from them. They get to the ball. They get guys around the ball and when you get guys around the ball, good things happen.”
The Falcons have already tested their mettle against two run-heavy offenses this season and will do so again against Strasburg, which has gone old-school and unveiled a new T-formation offense this fall.
The Rams scored 35 points in each of their first two wins and are averaging 302 yards per game, including 267 yards rushing per contest.
Hart, who has committed to the College of William & Mary, hasn’t been asked to do much in the passing game so far (he’s completed 6 of 17 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in two games). The bulk of the workload has fallen to senior running backs Jalen Bray (200 yards rushing, four touchdowns, 6.5 yards per carry) and Da’Neil Holliday (195 yards rushing, two touchdowns, 9.3 yards per carry).
Central saw a similar offense against Luray in Week 1.
“The plays aren’t very much different, the biggest thing is the splits,” Yew said. “Strasburg looks like they have at least 3-foot splits in the middle. They’re trying to widen you out. Luray’s toe-to-toe because they’re just trying to outman you, outmuscle you, get more men to the ball. Strasburg, my interpretation of what they’re trying to do is to make you play gap-control football and not just get four guys to this side and hope that we break a crease. They’re trying to make you play one man, one gap and honor what you have to honor and stay home.”
Central’s offense has been more balanced than Strasburg’s and enters the matchup averaging 125 yards passing and 148.7 yards rushing per game.
Senior quarterback Kelan Hoover, a first-year starter, has passed for 375 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and the Falcons have shown more variety in whom they hand the ball to in the running game than in past seasons. Alex Neff leads Central’s tailbacks with 151 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns.
The Falcons figure to be in for a tough test against a Strasburg defense that is allowing just 258 yards per game in the early going.
Hart said he was told to expect a large crowd on hand for tonight’s game, an exciting prospect for players on both sides.
“It adds a lot of juice. I mean, you look out in the crowd and you just see everybody, people lined up on the fences, it just adds to your energy and makes you ready to go,” Zirk said.
“It excites you, definitely, to play in front of a bunch of people,” Hart said. “We’ll see who performs good when the lights are shining on them in front of a bunch of people.”