STEPHENS CITY – Sherando High School’s football team has looked back on its Sept. 22 loss to Liberty (Bealeton) as the wakeup call that powered the Warriors’ string of success over the second half of the season. Sherando now gets a second chance against the Eagles at 7 p.m. tonight when the Warriors travel to No. 2 Liberty for the Region 4C championship.
After falling to the Eagles (9-2) two months ago, Sherando (10-2) lost a tight contest with West Virginia Class AAA Martinsburg the following week and has since reeled off six straight victories. The Warriors view tonight’s rematch as a chance to prove how much they’ve progressed since September.
Pulling off another win on Friday night would avenge the 31-28 loss to Liberty earlier this season and punch the Warriors’ ticket to the VHSL Class 4 state semifinals for the first time since 2013, when Sherando advanced to the Group 4A state championship game.
“I think this was definitely one of the games we were waiting to come back to,” Warriors junior two-way lineman Isaiah Allen said Monday. “We were kind of hoping to see what teams we would see again in the playoffs and I think this is definitely a team we wanna see again. They came at us the first game and I think we kind of slept on them a little bit, kind of didn’t give them as much credit than they deserved, and so now I think this time we come back and we’re a better and smarter team. Now we really want it, so I think this is definitely the game for us to have right now.”
The regional championship game will mark the second straight week the Warriors will play a fellow Northwestern District opponent. Sherando rallied to beat top-seeded Millbrook, 35-32, in last week’s semifinals, marking the Warriors’ second victory over the Pioneers in three weeks.
In its September meeting with the Eagles – the first between the two schools since 2014 – Sherando couldn’t hold a 9-0 lead after a wild fourth quarter saw both teams combine for 36 points.
Sherando’s cause wasn’t helped when junior quarterback Hunter Entsminger – the Class 4 Northwestern District Offensive Player of the Year – went down with an injury in the third quarter against the Eagles and forced running back T.J. Washington into a wildcat quarterback role for the remainder of the game.
The Warriors’ offense remained explosive with Entsminger out – they scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter – but Liberty thrived on its own big plays to complete the comeback.
Though Sherando held Liberty to 277 yards of offense, Eagles senior Ja’Von White scored a 25-yard rushing touchdown, a 29-yard receiving TD and returned an Entsminger interception for a score, and fellow senior Markael Gaskins had a 63-yard rushing touchdown to give Liberty the lead for good in the fourth quarter.
Entsminger has completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 2,321 yards, 28 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“Definitely, everyone’s thinking about it,” said Entsminger said of the rematch factor adding to Friday’s regional championship. “They beat us by three points and we slipped up on some things. We all did. Really we’re just going out there and showing what we can do. We’ve gotta play a better game than what we did last time. We know they’re gonna come out and play a strong game. So really just executing on both sides of the ball and I think we should be good.”
Sherando, which has thrived offensively behind a balanced attack (Washington has 1,433 yards rushing), enters the contest averaging 44.1 points and 400.4 yards per game. The Warriors have 87 plays for 20 or more yards this season, an average of more than seven a game.
On defense, an opportunistic Sherando unit has forced 33 turnovers and is limiting opponents to 16.8 points and 238.8 yards per contest.
Liberty, which earned one of two first-round byes in the regional playoffs, is averaging 34.5 points per game while holding opponents to 11.7 points per game. The Eagles have posted four shutouts this season.
Sherando head coach Bill Hall said he doesn’t expect much to change from the Eagles schematically in the rematch, though he added that Liberty junior quarterback Raymond Morton has since returned from a broken collarbone he suffered in the preseason. Fellow junior Jacob Chinault played QB for the Eagles in their first meeting with Sherando.
“There’s always different wrinkles. Anytime you play someone twice, that’s kind of where you’re like, ‘All right, we had success doing this but what’s their answer gonna be? And what’s our answers gonna be?’” Hall said. “So you’re trying to predict for some of those things.”
Friday’s matchup against Liberty will be a familiar one for Hall, whose Sherando program met the Eagles six times from 2012 to 2014, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs.
“We’ve played them since the beginning of time. The fact that we didn’t play them the last couple years was strange,” said Hall, who called Eagles head coach Sean Finnerty a good friend.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing Liberty. I enjoy playing people that really challenge you physically but also schematically and (as a) program. I think they’re a good program,” Hall said. “I like to put our program against other good programs because those are the ones that are tough. It’s gonna be a physical battle, it’s gonna be a schematical battle, it’s gonna be a chess game. But that’s how you really test yourself.”