WINCHESTER — At each of their home games the last seven years, the Millbrook football team has honored military members and first responders who died in the line of duty.
Tonight, the Pioneers will pay respect to someone who’s also left a lasting impact on the world.
Millbrook’s home opener at 7 p.m. tonight against Loudoun County — a matchup of two teams that made the Region 4C playoffs last year — will be the Pioneers’ first contest since the death of Scott Jackson. The father of Millbrook senior wide receiver and cornerback Jordan Jackson passed away at the age of 50 on Tuesday after a six-month battle with stomach cancer.
The Pioneers will be thinking of Scott Jackson tonight because they care about Jordan, who will be in action tonight. Scott will also be on their minds because he’s made an impact on the lives of countless young athletes in the area. A 2014 inductee into Handley’s Hunter Maddex Hall of Fame who starred in football and track for the Judges, Jackson was a longtime youth football and basketball coach in Winchester, Frederick County, and Clarke County and was also a coach in the Winchester Rising Stars AAU basketball program.
“The man was a very influential person in the community,” said Millbrook coach Josh Haymore after Wednesday’s practice. “I think about every one of these kids [at Millbrook], plus half the kids at Sherando, Handley and James Wood all played on some sort of team that he coached at some point in their lives.”
Millbrook senior quarterback Kaden Buza said while the circumstances are difficult, the team is prepared to give its all.
“We’ve just got to stay positive,” Buza said. “We know what we’ve got to do. We know [Scott’s] watching over us. This game is for him and this season’s for him. We’ve just got to stay positive and keep our heads up.”
The Pioneers (1-0) might need every bit of its resilience tonight because they’ll definitely be facing a worthy foe.
Some of the faces have changed at Loudoun County (it has five starters back on offense and six on defense), but the Raiders are coming off a season in which they went 9-2 and advanced to the Region 4C semifinals. Loudoun County’s two losses last year were both to eventual Class 4 state champion Woodgrove, and one of its wins was a Week 2 decision over Millbrook in which the Raiders jumped out to a 26-0 lead en route to a 49-28 win.
Led by former Handley coach Tony Rayburn — now in his fourth year with the Raiders — Loudoun County is coming off a 31-0 win last week against Fauquier in which it held the Falcons to one first down. The Raiders struggled on offense without graduated quarterback Nick Barts — a former Dulles District Offensive Player of the Year who threw for 358 yards and four touchdowns against Millbrook last year — but Loudoun County scored two defensive touchdowns in pulling away for a comfortable win.
Trying to stop Barts was the main point of emphasis for Millbrook last year. Attempting to limit Buza will be a primary goal for the Raiders this year. Buza completed 20 of 33 passes for 383 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions in last week’s 62-42 win over Jefferson (W.Va.). The Raiders did not face Buza in last year’s game because he was still working his way back from a preseason injury.
“Buza only made one decision I didn’t like [last week],” Haymore said. “He knows certain keys on certain plays and is not straying away from them. He’s taking what the defense gives him. He understands that is the most important thing. You don’t have to hit that deep ball all the time. You see what they give you and take that.”
Buza said he’s seeing what’s in front of him a lot more clearly than he did last year.
“I’m reading the defenses more efficiently,” Buza said. “I see the field a lot better than I did last year. I worked on that in the offseason with [Coach Haymore]. He helped me out with reading the blitzes, so that helps.”
After gaining more than 500 yards against Jefferson, the Pioneers might just have the pieces to be even stronger on offense than last year. Against Jefferson, Jackson had eight catches for 191 yards and three TDs, T.J. Spain had five catches for 103 yards and one TD and Gavin Evosirch had 13 carries for 107 yards and two TDs. Evosirch also had a receiving and punt return TD.
“We could be probably better [than last year’s offense],” Buza said. “We have a lot of trust around the offense.”
Loudoun County’s defense is built around its four returning starting linebackers in its 3-4 defense. Noah Lokey and Willie Stringfield were All-Dulles District selections. Fellow linebackers Luke McAllister (tight end) and Joseph Groves (wide receiver) were honored by the Dulles District on the offensive of the ball last year. Groves had two fumble recovery touchdowns against Fauquier.
Rayburn said he’s impressed with Buza.
“He’s real accurate,” Rayburn said. “He throws the ball real quick, and he’s got some talented receivers. That’s as good of a passing team as I’ve seen in quite a while.
“We can’t give them the same look all the time. I think we’re pretty quick on defense, and we’ve got to take advantage of that. The key probably is we’ve got to tackle them in the open field. You give them too many big plays, you’re out of the game real quick.”
Haymore said the Raiders’ defense presents a challenge.
“They’re physical, they’re fast, they blitz a lot,” Haymore said. “They play an attacking defense with a coverage you can’t get deep balls on. You’ve got to make guys miss to get big gains.”
Rayburn said Loudoun County ran the ball decently last week, but struggled throwing the ball. Gavin Pitts, a transfer from Woodgrove, led the Raiders with 11 carries for 45 yards and a TD. But he only completed 4 of 13 passes for 117 yards, and he had two interceptions.
“Offensively, we all need to improve a little bit, from the quarterback to the offensive line,” said Rayburn, who added the offensive line is dealing with some injuries. “Our running backs have to pass block a little bit better, and the receivers have to do some things better. We all just need to improve a little bit. We were close in a lot of areas, but we have to be a little better.”
While Millbrook gave up 42 points last week, only 14 came in the second half. One of those touchdowns was on a kickoff return and the second was against Millbrook’s second-string defense, so Haymore was pleased with the team’s improvement. The Pioneers are dealing with a new crop of starting linebackers this year, so a learning curve was to be expected.
“We were thinking too much as a linebacker corps,” Haymore said. “In the second half, we straightened some things out, and we played our type of football.
“We’re trying to get the mentality where we want it to be for the linebackers. Being new guys, now you’re in the spotlight, making the plays. It’s different than watching. [Former star linebacker] Brandon Shingleton went through the same thing. As he progressed and got better, all the little mistakes that the guys how are making, they went away. I expect as the season goes on, they’ll get better.”
Haymore said Millbrook will have to contend with a couple of quick athletes in running back Josh Pettiford and wide receiver/running back Tariq Sims.
Jackson said the Pioneers can’t afford to have another slow start against the Raiders this year.
“We have to execute better, and come out with more intensity on the defensive side,” Jackson said.
Jackson will certainly be ready to give everything he has tonight. Loudoun County High School is also special to the Jackson family because Scott served as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator a decade ago.
“[My father] is obviously going to be on my mind,” Jackson said. “I’m playing for him this week.”