This is an opportune season for the Gar-Field High School football team to boast battering offensive and defensive lines, because those might be vulnerable areas for Cardinal District favorite Hylton.
While defending Virginia AAA Division 6 state champion Hylton will rely heavily on promising but untested players up front, Gar-Field flaunts what could be the mightiest offensive line in the area, powered by first-team all-district picks Corey Stephens and Ryan Tekampe, second-teamer Robert Bruce and honorable mention pick Dennis Reaves, a transfer from Potomac.
"Our linemen are probably our strength right now, but we're young everywhere else," said Gar-Field Coach Tony Labozzetta, who has turned the offense over to sophomore Ryan Smith, whose older brother, Kevin, once quarterbacked the Indians. "We have goals, but we try to keep them in the locker room and just play hard."
Commonwealth District team North Stafford is another contender for local supremacy. Chris Ashinhurst threw for an area-high 1,698 yards last season, most among returning quarterbacks, in leading the Wolverines to their first playoff appearance since 1992. He is one of six offensive starters back from that team.
"We feel we still have things to prove," said North Stafford Coach Chris Beatty, whose defense returns two first-team all-district picks -- cornerback Allen Woodbridge and defensive tackle Lawrence Frierson. Woodbridge is likely to sign this week with Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin or Maryland, Beatty said.
But any potential challenger in the area will have to make up a lot of ground to catch Hylton, which has won 16 consecutive games, most notably the state championship over Varina.
Teams that lose 10 all-Cardinal players, including five two-way all-district guys, usually can count on a rebuilding season. Not the Bulldogs. The program returns eight all-district players, including four two-way standouts. One of them is first-team all-state quarterback Kenny Irby.
Hylton is teeming with running backs and linebackers, which should help compensate for their developing offensive line, which besides John Brower and Billy Reyers features a host of players unproven at the varsity level.
"If these kids don't come through, we're going to struggle," Coach Bill Brown said. "Most people don't pay a lot of attention to line play, but if you're a coach, you pay a lot of attention to it. Great skill people can become mediocre when you don't have that line."
Hylton is a team Potomac knows well. Too well. Three of the Panthers' five 1998 losses were to the Bulldogs. Even so, Potomac would welcome multiple meetings this fall. Because the teams will play only once during the regular season, a second matchup could come only in the playoffs.
Playing an 11th game, or more, is a lofty ambition for a Potomac team that returns just four starters and is banking on quickness along the lines to neutralize what almost surely will be opponents' superior size. Fortunately for those Panthers playing up front, they need to crack open just a whisker of daylight to spring running back Rico Lloyd, the state 200-meter outdoor champion.
"We'll probably be the smallest team in the district," said first-year Panthers coach Keith King, a Potomac assistant much of the decade. "But sometimes people get too caught up in how big people are."
One big person who merits such attention is Brooke Point offensive tackle Lane Zetty, one of the top college prospects in the state. His job is a little harder, though, with All-Met Offensive Player of the Year Daniel Davis now toiling at North Carolina. The top rushing threat to emerge for the Black-Hawks is junior Larry Smith.
"In a lot of years, he might have been on the varsity [as a sophomore]," Coach Tom Berry said. "We were fortunate we could keep him on JV last year to get him a lot of carries."
Woodbridge also brings back a host of offensive linemen, as well as quarterback Abey Malave-Lopez, who threw for 1,108 yards last season. That's an impressive number, though not exactly the one that Vikings Coach Ron Davis would like to see -- unless the team's rushing totals are equally impressive.
"Hopefully we can balance it out a little bit," said Davis, whose team is much more experienced than the unit that dropped four games by a touchdown or less last season.
Stonewall Jackson lost several close games, too, including four by a total of 13 points. The Raiders are combing for a new 1,000-yard rusher -- the school has produced more than its share -- to carry the program into the millennium. The primary candidates are fullback Richard Bailey and halfback Antwoin Saunders.
"We're looking for another one," said Jim Powell, entering his 23rd season as Stonewall head coach.
"It might take a few weeks to find out," Powell said.
Stonewall has time to wait: Sixteen of the 44 players on the roster are sophomores.
Osbourn begins its post-Elmer Holmes era with a fresh outlook stoked by a renovated school and a new coach, former Spotsylvania assistant Randy Bove. That freshness should spill over into Friday nights, as well, because Bove plans to use very few full-time two-way players, if any.
That's a popular move with returning Eagles who recall being gassed by the end of the third period in games last season.
"A few seniors have said, `This is great to just go one way,' even though they love to play," said Bove, adding that at the end of the team's first scrimmage, several Eagles were clamoring to keep playing. "They feel 100 percent better come the fourth quarter."
Osbourn lost quarterback Frankie Hogan, who transferred to Osbourn Park, where he is part of a 21-man senior contingent that seems intent on not waiting until Week 10 to win its first game, as the Yellow Jackets did last year.
Coach Mike Feldman said his players reported to camp in much better shape than they did a year ago. That has started the season off on a positive note.
"I like our enthusiasm and attitude," Feldman said. "I think we'll be able to build upon that."
Stafford knows it has a major construction job ahead, too. The Indians return just one starting lineman on either side of the ball, offensive guard/defensive tackle Matt Monterio.
"The skill position players are all seniors and have been around for a year," said second-year coach Roger Pierce. "They'll have to provide leadership."
In the Virginia A Bull Run District, Manassas Park is expecting the same sort of play from its ballhandlers, including running back James Fitchett and split end Walter Newman, both of whom rushed for more than 600 yards last year. The Cougars could be an exciting team to watch this season.
"This is the deepest team we've had at the skill positions in my eight years at the school," said second-year coach Jeff Lloyd.
Like Manassas Park, Brentsville is braced for the expanded Bull Run. A robust 48 players came out for the team, led by junior quarterback Chris Jenkins.
"We got a good senior turnout, and that always helps when you get that class out," Tigers Coach Mike Madison said. "That's been the stimulus for getting a good group."
It is a typical season for Quantico. The military base school has its share of new transfers and its share of lost transfers. One of the ones that got away did not go very far. Sophomore running back Dante McKoy transferred to North Stafford because his family moved off base.
"We're used to losing kids, but not losing them so close," joked Warriors Coach Ken Woodie, whose team returns six two-way starters.
You will not find any returning starters at first-year Stafford County school Colonial Forge. Nearly 100 freshmen, sophomores and juniors turned out for the team. With no senior class, the Eagles will play three varsity games and seven junior varsity games.
"We have kids who can run; we'll be physical; and we'll play a gambling defense," said Coach Karl Buckwalter, formerly the head coach at McLean High School.
Northwestern Region Semifinals
Hylton 49, Potomac 6
Gar-Field 6, North Stafford 3
Northwestern Region Final
Hylton 46, Gar-Field 15
Virginia AAA Semifinals
Hylton 24, Centreville 7
Hylton 21, Varina 13
PRINCE WILLIAM EXTRA'S PRESEASON TOP 5
Rank Team: 1998
1. Hylton: 14-0
2. Gar-Field: 7-5
3. North Stafford: 7-4
4. Woodbridge: 4-6
5. Brooke Point: 7-3
OTHER AREA OPPONENETS
* COMMONWEALTH DISTRICT
Culpeper (9-3 in '98), co-champion of the Commonwealth last year, advanced to the AAA Division 5 Northwestern Region final. The Blue Devils have one of the most productive passing games in Northern Virginia, with senior QB Mike Jenkins (more than 1,700 yards passing) and senior WR Terence Dinkins (49 catches) ... Fauquier (3-7), 2-5 in the AA Northwestern District, is led by senior FB/LB Eric Bailey (5-11, 218), a four-year starter ... Sherando (9-3), 5-2 in the AA Northwestern District, returns just one starter -- senior TE Chris Helmick -- from team that advanced to the Virginia AA Division 4 Region II final ... James Wood (3-7), 1-6 in the AA Northwestern District, had only 39 players turn out for varsity football.
* BULL RUN DISTRICT
Clarke County (5-5) and Strasburg (10-3) are returning to the Bull Run after a four-year absence. Strasburg, which won the Virginia A Shenandoah District with a 5-0 mark, advanced to the Division 1 state semifinals ... George Mason (9-2), the defending Bull Run champions, lost in the Virginia A Division 1 Region B semifinals. The Mustangs graduated nine first-team all-Bull Run performers ... Madison County (12-2), which lost to Powell Valley in the Virginia A Division 2 state final, returns fullback Raymond Kirkley (5-10, 157), rated by USA Today as one of the top 25 players in the state.