Stonewall Jackson made program history last year by winning its first outright district title since 1984 and coming within an overtime loss to Hylton in the Northwestern Region Division 6 championship of making the first state playoff appearance in the school's 40 years.
The Raiders must replace 1,300-yard rusher Chris Garrett, their offensive line and several other key components. But could Stonewall's path to another district title be smoother this season, with senior quarterback Ricky Milbourne and a veteran defense back?
Consider that Potomac, the Raiders' primary challenger last year, has returned to the Cardinal District. None of the other teams that now make up the Cedar Run managed a winning record in 2004. Newcomers Fauquier and Culpeper were 4-6 and 3-7, respectively. Osbourn and Osbourn Park went 3-7. Battlefield is playing its first varsity season this fall.
Those repeat hopes were blindsided this summer when sophomore running back Ryan Williams, who totaled more than 1,000 offensive yards last season, tore cartilage in his right knee at a seven-on-seven camp at Bridgewater College. His cleat got stuck in the grass as he tried to make a move on a defender. He underwent surgery July 20.
Williams said he is not sure whether he will be able to play this season. The other backs -- seniors Domonique Vaughn and Jared Simmons and sophomore John Carter -- are talented in their own right, but it was the powerful and elusive Williams who evoked did-you-see-that? glances among Stonewall observers last season.
Even without Williams, the Raiders have a lot to offer.
"It's not the speed of last year, but I didn't think it would be," said Coach Loren Johnson, who recently graded his offense at a B and his defense at a B-plus. "But we have a lot of skilled athletes which makes me very happy. . . . Last year the guys were so smart, they would probably out-think themselves sometimes. This year, this group is very athletic, so we want to put them in a position to be athletic."
With Williams out, the defense might need to provide more stops than last year's unit, which gave up 20 or more points in eight of 12 games. Still, the Raiders made the playoffs for the first time since 1996, in the process snapping losing streaks of 10 games to Potomac and six games to Gar-Field.
One Cedar Run game of particular note: When Battlefield plays at Stonewall Jackson on Oct. 14, it will pit Stonewall senior lineman Scott Beitzell against brother Pat, a junior running back-linebacker at Battlefield.
Osbourn often leads the league in preseason optimism, a trait that stems either from legitimate hope, or the desire to forget an unsuccessful past (21-69 record in AAA and no consecutive wins in 71 outings).
So what to make of this version of the Eagles, whose offense -- and in large part, season -- rests in the hands of junior quarterback Brandon Hogan, who will engineer the team's spread attack?
This is quite the stylistic change from recent seasons, when the Eagles ran the single-wing offense, with its snug formations. The talents of Hogan and the departures of beefy tackles spurred Coach Steve Schultze to switch. He consulted with a high school coach in Tennessee and other colleagues, attended clinics, studied and simplified Urban Meyer's old Bowling Green playbooks and entered the Eagles in various passing camps and leagues.
"I had several single-wing [assistants] that we had to convince this was the right thing to do, and as the head coach, it was my decision," Schultze said. "I felt like we weren't going to be able to pound the ball out and play smash-mouth football. Our emphasis is on . . . making the defense cover the whole field. The last two years, they only had to cover a quarter of it."
Senior running backs Ryan Anderson and Eddie Grizzle and senior receivers Justin Turner, Junior Sesay (who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds in cleats, on grass) and Julian Hooks are Hogan's top threats, with linemen Andrew Custer, Marcus Hyde, Thomas Murphy, Matt Lahna and Travis Young charged with giving him time to throw. Those linemen are seniors except for juniors Hyde and Young.
Osbourn beat two playoff teams last season -- Woodbridge and Potomac -- and three losses were by a touchdown or less. A win over Osbourn Park in the finale broke a nine-game series losing streak.
The district realignments have enabled Osbourn to no longer schedule Gar-Field, which outscored the Eagles, 245-30, the past seven years, or Hylton, which outscored Osbourn, 283-51, the past nine years. Only three teams on the schedule -- Potomac, Woodbridge and Stonewall -- had winning records in 2004, and two opponents are first-year varsity teams.
Osbourn Park Yellow Jackets
The Yellow Jackets were in games last season. They led Hylton, Stonewall and Potomac in three eventual losses.
"We were in them, but I don't know if we just weren't good enough or too young or not experienced," Coach Brian Beaty said. "We just didn't get it done. Football is four quarters, and we'd play a couple of quarters decent and just didn't finish the job."
A rebuilding season was to be expected considering the graduation losses off the 2002 and '03 teams that reached the Division 6 region championship. But falling to 3-7 ruffled the Jackets a bit because of the program's history -- 15-65 from 1994 to 2001, then 19-5 in 2002 and '03. Can OP, down for so long before the two-year uptick, sustain a winning program?
Tight end-linebacker Derek Ziese, linebacker Quillie Odom and running back Danny Mason -- all juniors -- will help determine that, along with other key players such as senior guards Tony Gray and Ben Harris.
Devin Thompson, who rushed for more than 1,800 yards the past two seasons combined, is not playing football this season.
Junior Ed Bohl and sophomore Aaron Lee are vying for the quarterback job. Osbourn transfer Torland Greene, a senior, will line up in a slot and could take some heat off senior Anthony Bratton, who led the area last season with 40 catches.
As a first-year program with no seniors, Battlefield thrived in 2004, beating its last seven junior varsity opponents.
In some ways, the Bobcats might have been too successful, because it has heightened expectations to perhaps too-lofty proportions for their first varsity season.
"For a second year, we're expecting an awful lot, and sometimes you have to take a step back and remind ourselves that we're still playing with sophomores and juniors," Coach Mark Cox said. "It's hard getting them to realize that they're not playing JV any more and are going to be playing the Hyltons and the Stonewalls. You can only tell them so many times. They're going to have to experience it themselves and see how they respond."
Cox, who as a sophomore quarterbacked Annandale to a state title in 1978, might use as many as three signal-callers in any given game -- returning starter Corey Thacker, a sophomore; Stonewall transfer Gregg Martino, a junior; and Westfield transfer Chris Ahern, one of about 10 seniors in the program. All three candidates should figure prominently at one position or another.
Battlefield has about 60 players in its varsity and junior varsity programs combined and another 60 freshmen.
Culpeper Blue Devils
Culpeper has a new district (formerly the AAA Commonwealth), new coach (six-year assistant Greg Martz) and a new classification (Division 6). But will it experience a change of fortune? The Blue Devils are 11-21 since coach Lou Sorrentino left to go to Hylton.
"In a way, it's a new beginning for Culpeper," said Martz, an assistant on the Blue Devils' team that won the 1999 Division 5 state title. "We're trying to bring something back to Culpeper. It's a good football community with great fans, great support."
Senior defensive backs Ricky Strother and Donte Orange are two of the top returning players off a 3-7 team that scored a touchdown or less in six games.
Martz's predecessor, Randy Bove, is an assistant at Potomac this season.
Fauquier also is facing a season of change with a new coach Greg Hatfield (formerly of Central-Woodstock), a new classification (AAA after playing in the AA Northwestern) and a new district.
And a new offense. Hatfield is installing the spread attack that helped Central advance to the playoffs. Senior quarterback Zac Caito, who completed 28 of 91 passes last year, will run it.
Four of the Falcons' six losses last season came by a total of nine points.
Hatfield's predecessor, Tom Ferrell, is now an assistant at Liberty, Fauquier's lone in-county rival.