SU Notebook: Hornet seniors made big impact
WINCHESTER — Any new coach is going to need a core group of veterans to help get their message across and set a good example for the rest of their teammates, and Hornets first-year head coach Scott Yoder said this year’s senior class definitely got the job done.
“I can’t say enough about these guys,” Yoder said. “It’s not a big class, but it’s the first group of seniors with me being a head coach, and I won’t ever forget ’em. We’ve got some really good players in that group, and they’re all great people.
“We’re not where we are today if those guys aren’t here. ... Without them buying in and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go [in] a new direction,’ we don’t have a chance. We really don’t. ... We’re going to build this thing the right way, and we’re all going to stand on what they’ve laid down for us.”
The Hornets (3-6, 2-4 Old Dominion Athletic Conference) will honor 11 players before today’s Senior Day game against Washington & Lee (5-4, 3-3).
Naturally, each senior class is special in its own right. For example, the 2011 team featured a program-record 19 seniors who helped the Hornets achieve the team’s first winning record (6-4) since their NCAA Tournament season in 2004.
But in addition to helping out Yoder in his first year, this senior class had to lift the Hornets up in the eyes of the ODAC after the team went winless in its debut season in the conference in 2012. And they had to do it with a relatively inexperienced group that relied heavily on sophomores and freshmen this season.
SU’s rollercoaster of a season has been well-documented, and the Hornets struggled to stay close in defeat — they have yet to lose by fewer than 11 points, and their average margin of defeat is 24.7 points.
But the wins were huge. The Hornets snapped a nine-game losing streak dating back to 2004 against Ferrum on Sept. 14 with a 43-29 win. SU beat another long-time nemesis in Bridgewater (the Hornets were 1-12 against them since 2000) for their first-ever ODAC win by the score of 29-20 on Oct. 5. And they stunned preseason ODAC favorite Hampden-Sydney 36-35 on Oct. 26, a defeat that remains the Tigers only one in conference play this year.
Senior defensive back/linebacker Byron Mitchell (team-high 77 tackles and 4.5 sacks, with 8.5 tackles for loss) who served as one of the team’s captains this year, said the senior class takes pride in the job they’ve done.
“I think the leadership by the seniors has really helped the program grow this year,” Mitchell said. “Three wins might not be a lot, but it shows that our program has turned around.
“Coach Yoder’s done a great job putting us in a leadership position. Having us hold team meetings, having us talk to the players and getting their minds in the right place and where they need to be. We’ve really helped transform the foundation of this program.”
Senior defensive tackle and captain Preston Funk (35 tackles, four for loss, one sack) couldn’t agree more, and he thinks SU is destined for a strong future.
“It’s going to be nice to look back and realize we’re the building block for what’s about to come,” Funk said.
That being said, it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s going to end, but I think after [today] it’s really going to hit me,” Funk said Wednesday. “I think after every practice, I’m going to be sitting down and saying, ‘I’m never going to have another Tuesday practice, another Tuesday lift.’ After [today] there won’t be any more team meetings, no lifting.
“It’s slowly starting to hit me about how football’s going to be done for me. I’ve been playing 14 years, and I don’t know what life is really like without football.”
Mitchell said his favorite memory at SU is beating Bridgewater because he’s never liked the Eagles. To beat them at Shentel Stadium for a historic win — not to mention silencing his older brother Brandon, a former Bridgewater standout who told Byron the Hornets wouldn’t win — made it a night he’ll never forget.
Heading into his final game, Mitchell said he can’t thank enough all the coaches who have helped him, from former head coach Paul Barnes, to Yoder, to associate head coach Brock McCullough (formerly defensive coordinator) and defensive line coach Kalvin Oliver.
“It’s definitely bittersweet [thinking about this game],” Mitchell said. “We want to help the foundation of this program by winning this game and sending this team into next season on a high note.”
When it comes to all-around performance, SU sophomore running back Andrew Smith has been as dangerous as they come this year.
Smith ranks second in the ODAC in all-purpose yards this year with 1,538, trailing only Randolph-Macon’s Will McGhee (1,665).
But no one’s been more versatile in the ODAC than Smith. He ranks sixth in the ODAC with 824 rushing yards, has 266 receiving yards (thanks to 3.7 receptions per game, 10th in the ODAC), and he has 448 kickoff return yards. Smith leads the ODAC with a 24.5 average on kickoff returns.
Smith — who is also tied for third in the ODAC with 11 touchdowns — said he definitely takes pride in his ability to do multiple things.
“It’s a good feeling, because it’s not just, ‘Oh, he’s just a running back,’ ” Smith said. “You have to look at [me] all over the field, knowing that I can do kick returns, coming out of the backfield receiving, lining up as a receiver sometimes. Teams have to respect that, which opens up other things for other players if a team has to have two or even three guys looking at me.”
Yoder said what’s Smith’s done has been truly impressive.
“I knew that Andrew was a good football player, but I had no idea he was going to be this productive,” Yoder said. “And I say that in a good way. He’s been hands-down our most explosive football player. I’ve been really impressed with Andrew. He’s a warrior.”
Yoder said starting inside linebacker Michael Wroble will not play this week. He was suspended last week for a violation of team rules.
Yoder also said that fellow inside linebacker Jason Hager — who did not play last week — will likely not play today because of “concussion-like symptoms.”
Sophomore George Cluster will get the start, and senior Tommy Abel will also play in their stead. Michael Messick will man the other inside linebacker position as he’s done all year.
Scouting the Generals
In losing to Washington & Lee 42-23 last year, the Hornets actually held the Generals’ prolific rushing attack out of the triple option down somewhat. Washington & Lee had 235 yards on 52 carries after coming into the game sporting a 397.1 average rushing.
A week later, Yoder — then the defensive coordinator at Hobart — helped devise a plan that limited the Generals to 188 yards on 47 carries in a 38-20 Hobart win in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Mitchell hopes those experiences pay off this year against a Washington & Lee team that averages 352.6 yards per game. Quarterback Nick Lombardo has rushed for 860 yards, and running back Marshall Hollerith has 899 yards.
Mitchell said it will be key stopping dive plays, and if they do that he feels like and he and fellow outside linebacker Sean Blackman could do well.
Funk said SU’s defensive line will be challenged by an experienced Generals offensive line, and with the triple option, it’s always key to play assignment football.
“Everybody has to do their job and rely on everybody else to do theirs,” Funk said.
Offensively, SU will take on a Generals defense that ranks third in rushing defense (145.7) and sixth in pass defense (198.9) in the ODAC. On Wednesday, Yoder said the team had not decided if freshman Justin Neff (five starts) or junior Drew Ferguson (four starts, including the last two games) will start at quarterback, but he did say both will play, as has been the case all season.
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at email@example.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1