With the kickoff of the 2014 high school football season quickly approaching, our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. Here is the latest installment of Camp Countdown:
By the time Patriot‘s two-hour practice ended Tuesday morning, the Pioneers found themselves laughably at the mercy of the torrential rain pouring down from above.
Heavily soaked footballs wobbled through the air and squirted around in the hands of players, shackling Patriot’s normally high-powered offense. Meantime, defenders had trouble keeping their footing on occasion, putting their tackling ability to the test on the slick field.
With 16 days still remaining before their Aug. 28 season opener against Forest Park and the majority of their starters from last year’s playoff team returning, the Pioneers could have easily called off practice for the day. But in the rain, they remember how they refused to quit amid stormy weather and four turnovers in a comeback win against Osbourn Park last year, and how they are determined to build on a season that ended with their first playoff game — a soggy loss at home to Robinson.
“It was crazy being out in the rain [Tuesday] and I think we still looked good until it got to the point where the ball was so wet it felt like a brick,” Patriots wide receiver Nick Mathews said. “We remember those games in the rain, and we got off to slow starts — so if nothing else, practicing in the rain can help us with our concentration.”
Granted, this is only Patriot’s third year of varsity football competition, but the focus of the 2014 squad points to much higher expectations than the previous two seasons. Mathews, quarterback Cody Agnew and several other catalysts behind an offense that averaged 34.3 points per game are back, and a defense led by linebacker Timmy Keenan will look to use the wisdom from last year’s playoff appearance to put together a deeper postseason run.
“I think we were able to sneak up on some people last year because we’re still a relatively new school, but it might be a little different this year,” Pioneers Coach Brud Bicknell said. “We like to put pressure on the other team with a balance of run and pass to create big plays, and we want to continue that, so we can’t be complacent.”
A number of these big plays were created by Agnew, who threw for 2,205 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his second year as the starter. The senior is working on his accuracy to cut down on his mistakes and maximize the opportunities for Mathews (team-high 946 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) through the air and Jake Caparella, who will be the team’s feature back following the graduation of 1,000-yard rusher Nick Ferrari-Smith.
It helps that Trent Kelly, Jake Girard and Gordon Lucy return to anchor the offensive line, serving as the foundation for a Pioneers team that must face tough Prince William County foes Forest Park, Hylton, Stonewall Jackson and rival Battlefield.
They’ll need stronger play from their defense, which showed flashes of promise (six straight wins) and room for improvement (at least 21 points allowed in five games). But with the determination shown in practices like Tuesdays, the Patriots — who went from three wins in 2012 to eight last fall — appear to be on the right track.
“I think the experience of playing in a playoff game, even though we lost, helped us realize we can compete with other good schools around the area,” Agnew said. “We’re more familiar with each other as a team and that should make this year even better.”