STEPHENS CITY — The Sherando football team is still finding its way after losing more than half of its starters from last year's team.
But the Warriors are 2-0, and they've outscored their opponents by an impressive 90-19 total. They'll face a daunting challenge tonight as they attempt to improve to 3-0, but it's one they relish as they attempt to keep improving.
Three-time defending West Virginia Class AAA state champion Martinsburg (2-0) will bring its 44-game winning streak into Arrowhead Stadium at 7 p.m. tonight. The Bulldogs boast five all-state players and numerous other contributors with size and speed to a team that has outscored its two Washington, D.C., foes by an aggregate 125-18 this season.
Only one team has come within 21 points of the Bulldogs since the start of 2016, and that's Sherando. The Warriors have lost three times by a total of 15 points during the Bulldogs' run, with the largest margin seven points. Martinsburg has won seven of eight meetings since the squads began playing on an annual basis in 2011, and only two of those meetings have been decided by more than 14 points. Martinsburg is 3-1 at Arrowhead in that time and its biggest margin of victory was 27-13 in 2013.
One of the reasons that Sherando probably has played Martinsburg so well is that the Warriors don't seem to get overwhelmed mentally. Sherando coach Bill Hall played for VHSL Hall of Fame coach Glenn Proctor before graduating in 1992, and he had a sense the Rams teams he played on were often in opponents' heads.
"When I grew up in Strasburg, I think half the time we won ballgames before we ever played the game," said Hall after Tuesday's practice. "Teams were like, ‘Oh, we’re playing Strasburg,’ and that was it. I think sometimes that happens with us here. Some of the opponents go ‘The Warriors are in town,’ and they psyche themselves out. I think some people could compete with Martinsburg to some degree. But it’s Martinsburg, then psychologically when something happens it’s ‘There it goes’ and they expect [adversity].
"I think we have a healthy respect for the championship-level caliber it takes to compete at [Martinsburg's] level. And we also want to challenge ourselves, because that’s what it’s like in the playoffs. So we embrace the opportunity to compete. Competitive excellence is one of the core pillars that we pride ourselves in, and there’s no better competitive excellence atmosphere than [tonight]."
The players are certainly looking forward to the moment. Sherando's one win over Martinsburg came in 2015 at Arrowhead, when the current Warrior seniors were in eighth grade.
"This is our senior year, so we know this is our last chance at them," said senior linebacker and running back Payne Bauer, who has 16 tackles (11 for loss) and seven sacks this year. "We're pretty excited to get the opportunity again."
Sherando likely won't fare well if it continues to struggle with penalties. The Warriors have committed 25 penalties for 235 yards this year, including 14 penalties for 128 yards in last week's 41-7 win against Jefferson (W.Va.)
In practice, Hall said the team has been emphasizing better communication, and the Warriors have been replicating game conditions by subbing players in and out and having signals come from the sidelines as opposed to behind the huddle.
"We've been focused on being more disciplined," said senior free safety and wide receiver Jabril Hayes (five catches for 111 yards and three TDs). "We believe in practicing the way you want to play, so we've been increasing the intensity in practice, making sure we're motioning and blocking the way we need to in the games."
Execution for Sherando will be particularly important if the team is missing another key player.
The Sherando football team hasn't been at full strength all year. For example, wide receiver/linebacker Keli Lawson hasn't suited up during the regular season. On Tuesday, quarterback Chacai Campbell was among the players who weren't dressed for practice. Campbell has completed 13 of 28 passes for 281 yards, five TDs and two interceptions and rushed 26 times for 170 yards and two TDs.
Campbell's status is unknown for tonight. Hall has been expressing his confidence in sophomore quarterback Dylan Rodeffer since the preseason. Hall said in August that the strong-armed Rodeffer could be used in certain situations with Sherando's first team and might not be limited to being a traditional backup.
Rodeffer has seen action late in the Warriors' first two games with Sherando comfortably ahead, throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass on his one pass attempt last week against Jefferson.
"He's been preparing for his opportunity just the way everybody else does," Hall said after Tuesday's practice. "We started throwing back in March. He's had a lot of time with me, our receivers. He's prepared for when his number is called just the way the rest of the guys are."
No matter who's on the field, Sherando will be tested by a stellar defense. The Bulldogs have nine takeaways and have held opponents to 9 points and 86 yards per game. Martinsburg features all-state defensive lineman Matt Bednarski (6-2, 260), all-state defensive back Teddy Marshall and linebacker Bryce Morris, who leads the team with 15 tackles.
"Being efficient," said Hall when talking about the keys to success. "One, you can't be predictable. I think in big games, you just can't play it close to the vest. I think you have to take some shots and I think you have to make them defend the whole field horizontally and vertically."
With senior running back Darius Lane leading the Warriors in rushing (42 carries for 281 yards and three TDs) and receiving yardage (4 catches, 112 yards, 2 TDs), Sherando is averaging area bests in yardage (446.3 yards per game) and points (45.0).
Offensively, Martinsburg's offense is just as prolific as its defense. The Bulldogs are averaging 62.5 points and 322 yards per game and averaging 7.6 yards per play (Sherando is averaging 8.1).
The Warriors will not have to deal with the bruising quarterback Grant Harman this year, who rushed for 155 yards and two TDs and passed for 111 and two TDs in last year's Martinsburg win. Quarterback Elijah Banks — who split time with Harman last year — is more of a pocket passer. He completed 8 of 14 passes for 123 yards and two TDs in last year's Sherando game and has completed 15 of 26 passes for 289 yards, seven TDs and two interceptions this year.
Banks has several talented receivers, including 5-8, 153-pound all-state selection Jarod Bowie (six catches, 131 yards, three TDs), 6-0, 170-pound Anthony Smith (four catches, 125 yards), Marshall (6-1, 180) and Malakai Brown (5-11, 185), an all-state selection who transferred from Hedgesville (W.Va.)
"You can't really focus on one receiver," Hall said. "[Bowie] makes a lot of plays, but it's not like the rest of them don't make plays. All their skill guys are good."
That includes speedy running back Naieem Kearney (5-8, 180). The all-state selection picked up 147 yards and a TD on 21 carries against Sherando last year and has 150 yards and three TDs on 20 carries this season.
Martinsburg also boasts an impressive line that features three returning starters and a transfer starter from Hedgesville. All of them are at least 6-2 and four of them weigh at least 250 pounds. Left guard Ty Lucas (6-3, 310) has been offered by Kent State.
Sherando's ability to perform well against that line could be critical. The Warriors' defense has been playing at a high level, giving up 9.5 points and 196 yards per game while recording five takeaways.
"They have a really good front, and their left side really stands out," Hall said. "It will be a challenge for our front, but I think our front has done well in the first two games. It's a big thing for our front to get challenged like that, and we need to respond accordingly."
Sherando wants a win, but no matter the final result, Hall wants to see improvement.
"We try not to let the scoreboard define success for us," Hall said. "As much as some people would have looked at our score last week and said that was good football, in our eyes that wasn’t the way we wanted to play the game of football.
"People can judge us however they want, it’s about us trying to realize our potential individually and collectively. We need to take another step forward this week. We improved from the first week to the second week. Obviously there were some penalty things but there were a lot of good things last week. This game is good for us in every way, shape, and form. I like how the way it challenges us as coaches and I like the way it challenges our kids."