Summer workouts are long gone, preseason camp is in the rearview and the real deal begins on the football field for Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg tonight at Ram Stadium.
In what is a near decade-long tradition, the two Shenandoah County rivals meet in the season opener with Strasburg playing host to this season’s contest, which is scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m. to mark the official start of the 2018 campaign.
Both Stonewall and Strasburg can set the tone for their seasons based on their performances tonight, and Rams junior quarterback Chase Hart said Strasburg has something to prove heading into the opener.
“I think we just wanna show how much work we’ve put in this summer,” Hart said of a Rams squad that went 5-6 last season and fell in the first round of the Region 2B playoffs. “Coming off last year, I think a lot of teams are kind of looking down on us, so we just wanna show teams what we’re about. I mean, we’re so much better in the head than we were last year and I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of teams this year.”
Stonewall, a team stuck in a 27-game losing streak that dates back to the 2015 season, enters the opener as the underdog. Strasburg has won the last eight regular-season meetings against the Generals, including a 34-0 rout at Stonewall last season. The Generals did nearly pull off the upset during their last trip to Strasburg in 2016, falling 13-12 after the Rams made a defensive stand on Stonewall’s go-ahead 2-point conversion attempt with less than four minutes to play.
“We obviously wanna play a close game because we didn’t play well against Strasburg last year,” Generals senior two-way lineman James Shumway said, “and we’re pretty upset over the year before when we lost by a point. We know what to expect from them. We’ve played against them our whole lives, so we know those guys. We want a little bit of revenge. We’ve gotta work heavily on defense and just keep the physicality up with them.”
Strasburg was the more physical team a year ago, gashing the Generals’ defense for nearly 300 yards rushing in the blowout win. The player responsible for most of that damage, former Ram tailback Austin Miller, has since graduated, opening the door for junior Jalen Bray to take over as the lead back in Strasburg’s run-heavy offense.
“I’d really like to see what Jalen has going on and how he’s gonna handle things,” Rams head coach Mark Roller said. “That’ll tell us what we need to know there a little bit about our running game. We’re expecting big things. We saw a little bit last year from Jalen, so I’m kind of excited with what I’ve seen so far, how hard he runs. We’re gonna push that early on and then if we need to throw it out there a little bit on the outside, we can do that.”
Strasburg has the established weapons to hurt Stonewall through the air – Hart passed for 1,557 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, while senior Stephen Kloosterman (31 receptions, 615 yards, six TDs in 2017) and junior Trevor Sager (18 receptions, 342 yards, two TDs) bring experience at receiver – but Generals second-year head coach Pete Lampman said he doesn’t expect the Rams to venture far from their traditional power-running style.
“We need to tackle better and be more aggressive,” Lampman said. “That’s just across the board. We need to tackle better, block better. We need to be more aggressive.”
Stonewall’s offense, which is entering its second season running the triple-option, needs more production from that unit tonight than it got in last year’s meeting with the Rams when the Generals generated fewer than 100 yards of total offense.
Stonewall has new faces across the board on offense, with only one returning starter (senior receiver Blake McCourt) playing the same position he played last season. Senior Logan Ritchie, a wingback in 2017, has moved back to quarterback this year, and Lampman said earlier this month that junior fullback Tyler Vanderpuye and wingbacks Rion Dennison and Damian Tapia would join Ritchie as new starters in the backfield.
The Generals averaged only 11.3 points and 191 yards of offense per game during last year’s regular season.
Hart said despite Stonewall’s struggles the Rams are treating the Generals “like they’re any other team,” and Roller added that while the coaching staff has pushed that exact message, he doesn’t expect Strasburg to overlook any team in a season opener on its home field.
“I think the first game, you don’t have to worry about that too much because they’re amped up there, they’re ready to go, and they’re excited, first-game jitters and everything else,” Roller said. “It’s usually the first couple minutes there of the game that kind of set the tone of what’s gonna go on that game. I don’t think we have to worry too much about it with our kids looking ahead to anybody.”