WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s football team was knocked out of contention for an Old Dominion Athletic Conference title weeks ago, but there are still milestones to be chased for a Hornets squad trying to build itself into a conference challenger.
SU, which is coming off its bye week, has home games left against Washington and Lee — the Hornets’ final ODAC opponent of the season — and Methodist over the next two weekends. At 5-3 overall and 4-3 in conference play, the Hornets have a chance to post a winning season for the third time in the last four seasons and have a winning conference record for the first time since 2016.
With its win over Ferrum two weeks ago, Shenandoah already guaranteed that its current group of four-year seniors won’t have to experience a losing season during their college careers, a feat that head coach Scott Yoder said on Wednesday was a point of emphasis heading into that 49-31 win over the Panthers. It’s the first time since 2001-2004 that SU has had four straight seasons of a .500 record or better.
Winning their next two games and taking some major momentum into the offseason is the next target on the Hornets’ list, as doing so would set the tone for “who we want to be” as they prep for 2020, Yoder said.
“I think we’re pretty comfortable in the fact that we know we’re gonna be competitive week in and week out in the ODAC, but how do you beat the (Randolph-)Macons and the (Hampden-)Sydneys and the W&Ls and the Bridgewaters consistently so you can have a 9-1, 8-2, 10-0 season?” Yoder said. “We’re not there yet. We have to build to that. We’ve got some really good young players. We’re gonna lose a good group of seniors that have given a lot but yes, our job big picture of the program is how do we get out of the 6-4, 5-5 phase and be in the (situation where) a bad year is 7-3 and a good year is 9-1, 10-0? That’s a huge leap. You break 100 in golf, not that that’s easy, but then you go to try to break 80. That’s a lot harder. But I think that’s the next thing. I don’t think our guys have any doubt that we can play week in and week out with whatever ODAC team we have, but now we’ve got to consistently beat these top-tier teams, which we have not done.”
A win over Washington and Lee (5-3, 4-3), which would be SU’s second over the Generals in as many years, would be a big step in that direction. W&L regularly has been an ODAC contender — the Generals have won four conference titles since 2010, the most of any team in that span — and is potentially a couple plays away from being one again this season, having lost to Emory & Henry on a buzzer-beating Hail Mary and to Randolph-Macon on a last-second field goal.
Saturday’s Shenandoah-W&L winner will finish the season in fourth place in the ODAC, and an SU win would keep the Hornets in play for a seven-win season, something they haven’t had since 2004.
SU’s players and coaches speak regularly about focusing on being the best team they can be and letting the chips fall where they may, but 6-4 or 7-3 would look a whole lot better at season’s end than 5-5.
“I think it definitely is a huge confidence builder for us, just because I know how young of a team we are,” Hornets sophomore receiver Ethan Bigbee said of potentially posting a winning record. “I mean right now we’re being led by a freshman quarterback (Chris Sonnenberg), so it just gives us a certain degree of confidence within our players and definitely within our staff. All of our work is coming to fruition. If we stay on the path that we’re on right now, there’s no telling how far we can go. Maybe we’ll be even better next year and keep on building on that. (A winning record) definitely comes with some stock. It just gives us a good mindset going into next year.”
That Shenandoah is within striking distance to post a winning record is a feat in itself considering the inconsistencies at quarterback that the Hornets have battled for most of the season. Sonnenberg, who will make his second career start this Saturday after tossing six touchdowns against Ferrum two weeks ago, is the third QB to start a game for SU this season.
“I’m thrilled as far as this season where our group has been able to put ourselves in position to accomplish, and I think that speaks to everybody,” Yoder said. “My firm belief at the beginning of the year was we can’t have a revolving door at quarterback because then we’re not consistently getting better. … And what did we end up having? Exactly what I felt like would hold us back. And I think we made changes when we needed to and I think we did what was best for the program at that time, so I don’t regret any of that. But to sit here having played three quarterbacks and be in a position to (win six or seven games), I think it speaks volumes about our kids.”
TAKING A BREATHER: Shenandoah’s bye week in recent years had fallen right before the start of conference play, giving the Hornets time to gear up for a run through the ODAC gauntlet. The off week this year came right before what was originally scheduled to be SU’s season finale against W&L, giving a different feel to the break in the action for the Hornets.
“I’ve never had one this late,” Yoder said of the bye. “Certainly structurally, Xs and Os-wise, we appreciate it before W&L, but it felt like when we finally got to the bye week that it was a deep breath, like ‘We really needed this.’ … Obviously the injury bug kind of hit us at some certain spots and we needed to get some guys back and be able to back off and not have to get ready for a game that next week.”
In addition to a time for healing after a string of eight straight games, the bye week afforded Shenandoah the chance to take an internal focus at some of the kinks that needed addressing as it closes out the season.
Bigbee said on offense that meant working on things like the timing on certain passing routes and pre-snap alignments to find an advantage against opponents. Sophomore defensive back Trammel Anthony said that the secondary focused on improving its technique, winning more 50-50 balls and tackling.
“The other thing is it’s so important because it’s in front of a big game for us, for sure,” Bigbee said of the bye. “W&L is always a formidable opponent every year, so I think it gives us an advantage, an extra week to focus on them and what they’re doing.”
INJURY UPDATE: Yoder said senior offensive lineman Michael Davidson is making progress in his return from a knee injury suffered against Emory & Henry on Oct. 26, adding that he’s cautiously optimistic Davidson could be available for Saturday’s game after he returned to practice in a limited capacity on Tuesday.
“I think he’ll be available for Saturday. I don’t know how much he’ll play yet,” Yoder said. “I need to see him two more days here. I think as long as there’s no setback he’s an absolute yes for Methodist, I just don’t know about W&L until I see more.”
Yoder added that receiver Casey Stewart was given a day off to “get his legs back” but should be good to go on Saturday.