FRONT ROYAL — Given how tough Warren County’s first-half schedule was this football season, the Wildcats could rightfully feel that they’re entering the more winnable part of the season with the start of Class 3 Northwestern District play against George Mason tonight.
Well, the Wildcats might’ve felt that way had they not been coming off a 1-9 season a year ago.
“After the season we had last year, no game is guaranteed,” Wildcats head coach Brian Bush said on Monday afternoon. “We’re gonna have to put a whole game together and do what we do best and sort of focus on not beating ourselves. Mason is (fourth) in the region for a reason. They’ve won some ballgames and they know how to close out games, so we have to make sure that we definitely don’t take them lightly.”
Warren County, which enters its district opener at 1-4 overall, didn’t have to worry much about overlooking any of its first five opponents. The Wildcats’ lone win this season has come against a winless first-year school (Independence), but their four losses have come to teams who have a combined 16-5 record. Three of those schools are members of the Virginia High School League’s Class 4, while the other — New Jersey’s Timber Creek Regional — has at least two NCAA Division I scholarship athletes on its roster.
If nothing else, the Wildcats — who sit in eighth place in the latest Region 3B playoff rankings — are at least battle-tested as they come off their bye week to host a Mason squad that is coming off its own off week at 3-2 following three straight wins.
“The first five games were definitely challenging,” said Bush, whose team will play its first home game in over a month against the Mustangs. “I’m proud of how we stuck in there and didn’t give up. I’m proud of how we got better each and every single day. Now we’re in the middle of the season and the next five games are gonna be a test of how much better have we gotten over the season.”
George Mason, a first-year member of the Northwestern District, doesn’t boast the same strength of schedule as the Wildcats. The Mustangs hung with Class 6 Falls Church in a 14-7 loss in their opener and followed that with a 35-20 loss to Strasburg but have earned three straight blowout victories over winless Madison County, a Manassas Park squad that didn’t have enough players to field a varsity team in 2018 and one-win Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.).
What the Mustangs will bring is a change of pace offensively from what Warren County has grown accustomed to defending this season. After a first half largely spent game-planning for mobile quarterbacks and high-flying passing attacks, the Wildcats must now get ready for a nearly run-exclusive double-wing offense that has Mason averaging 39.7 points over the last three games.
“On film, they’re a totally different animal from what we’ve faced,” Bush said. “They run the double-wing and they just all lead right, all lead left, reverse right, reverse left and they just keep going at it. We’ll have to strap up and buckle down and sort of get ready for that type of offense. But I think last week being a bye week, we were sort of able to get healthy, sort of work on a few things and get ready for them.”
Bush called Mustangs sophomore quarterback Evans Rice a “hard-nosed kid,” adding that junior wingback Robert Silva looks like Mason’s most athletic offensive weapon on film.
Warren County is allowing 48.4 points per game and has already allowed more points this season (242) than it had in each of the previous two years.
“We’ve got stay disciplined,” Bush said. “We’ve got to make sure that we don’t get upfield, whereas the previous five games that we played we sort of had to worry about the quarterback scrambling or the deep pass, just the pass in general and be able to get a pass rush. Well, here it’s the total opposite. We can’t get upfield. We’ve got to do our job well and try not to do anybody else’s job for them. As long as we stay disciplined and stay true to what our assignments are, we’ll be just fine.”
Offensively, Warren County has thrived in the passing game behind the arm of junior quarterback Bryce Post. Post, a three-year starter, has already passed for 951 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, and senior Logan Dehaven (22 receptions for 449 yards and six touchdowns, 20.4 yards per reception) has been his favorite target.
The Wildcats will try to keep that passing game going against a Mason defense that has given up just 13 points over the last three games and is allowing 12.4 points per contest this season.
“It helps that he’s starting to trust his receivers,” Bush said of Post’s passing success. “The receivers are running great routes, running hard. I think all the receivers that are in the game understand that they can be open at any time and Bryce is a good enough quarterback that he’s gonna be able to stick it into tight spots and be able to deliver a ball anywhere and everywhere on the field. And having the ball in Bryce’s hands is key. So far he’s made great decisions and hopefully we can carry that forward.”