By ROB WITHAM
H-P Sports Correspondent
They watched from the sidelines during week one. Now, Patrick Henry, Atlee, and Lee-Davis all hit the field to open their 2017 football seasons, each with question marks and high hopes.
Patrick Henry (8-4, 5A North Region Second Round in 2016): The Patriots come off their second playoff appearance in three seasons after missing the postseason for six straight years, but begin a new era as Keith Braxton, a longtime assistant in the college ranks and former Patriot player in the early 1990’s, replaces Bryan Davis who stepped down last spring after three seasons.
There are big contributors returning, both literally and figuratively. Michael Harris, at 6’2”, 300 pounds, will help anchor the offensive line at tackle, and the defensive line as nose guard. Danny Michalak, at the exact same height and weight, will line up at the other offensive tackle, looking to help protect senior Hunter Hart, who will spend time both at quarterback and linebacker.
“Something different about camp than previous years was the energy level and focus,” Hart noted. “Coaches would generally get on us about coming out flat or unfocused in the past, but this year we all came out ready to kick off the season with a high level of focus, ready to learn new schemes and coverages.”
Perhaps Hart’s biggest target, Kaleb Smith, departed for Louisa, and, having gotten injured in baseball last spring, would not have been available. Look for senior Jamel Jackson and sophomore Cedric Carter to be options. Another sophomore, Samandre Williams, will have opportunity in the backfield, while senior Terrance Oxendine returns with experience and speed.
On the defense, Brandon Sullivan will man one safety position, while Devyn Coles and Jackson help hold down the corners. Senior A.J. Norris, junior Terry Henderson, and sophomore Owen Arruza will join Hart in the linebacking corp. Quanya Coles brings speed off one defensive end position, while Maurice Fountain brings size from the other.
The Patriots must get major production from the sophomore class if they want to make it three playoff appearances in four seasons. At least two wins in their three non-district games, given the toughness of the Capital District schedule, seems almost necessary, which means Braxton’s first team must get off to a strong start. Their opener is at Caroline Friday night, followed by games with Glen Allen and, in the return of the “Camo Bowl”, hosting Deep Run September 15.
Patrick Henry also makes their debut in Class 4, Region B after a decade in the former Group 5A, fighting Hanover, Dinwiddie, Monacan, Midlothian, Powhatan, Louisa and others in a 13-team region where the top eight teams will make the postseason tournament beginning November 10. Six wins should do the trick, and there are more than six winnable games on the schedule. Cautious optimism should be the rule as the Braxton era begins.
Lee-Davis (8-3, 5A South Region first round in 2016): The Confederates’ early exit from the playoffs last year, a loss at Douglas Freeman, left Lee-Davis hungry, motivated, and ready to avenge for that mistake. They return a big nucleus of experience on both sides of the ball for fourth-year head coach Ryan Turnage, beginning under center.
Zach Lass starts his second season at quarterback, and will see a familiar target in tight end Jalen Hargrove. The big question is who will replace Nathan Evans, now at William and Mary, at running back. The answer is with at least two options: Josh Rice, who has shown tremendous talent at several positions on both sides of the ball, and Jamir Johnson, whose speed spelled Evans at times last year and will counterbalance Rice’s downhill style in the backfield.
“We have three kids back on the line, and Colby Andrews, he went through all of our spring drills, so he knows what we’re doing, and has great technique,” noted Turnage at a recent practice, pointing to Shane McGinnis and sophomore Harry Henderson as new players who can rotate at the final guard position, confident in the strength and experience at offensive line.
Hargrove was All-State at defensive lineman a year ago, while Ty Mills was All-Conference, and anchor a line that combines speed and size to neutralize opponents. Some new blood will help fill the middle including Jake Bradshaw, a newcomer as a senior, and Lee-Davis gets help by only using one player, center Bryce Hilliard, both on the offensive and defensive lines, keeping the men in the trenches fresh for the fourth quarter.
Logan Dockman, Zach Green and Ned Anthony come off an impressive season collectively at linebacker to provide the anchor to the defense. Newcomer Darius Kelly joins the secondary alongside Rice, Johnson and senior Kemar McCauley.
Another weapon that could prove vital is kicker Joseph Hudnall, returning for his senior season which should place him atop the all-time scoring list at Lee-Davis before 2017 comes to a close. His punting ability can change a game with field position as well.
Lee-Davis has posted consecutive 8-2 regular seasons, and now expect to win the mythical county title and, this year, not just be in the postseason, but make noise once arriving. Class 5, Region B sees familiar obstacles, from Highland Springs to Hermitage and L.C. Bird, the former coming to Mechanicsville for a September 22 showdown. Turnage’s roster is impressive, and, if they avoid the injury bug, a strong postseason run is quite possible. It all begins Thursday at Mills Godwin.
Atlee (5-6, 5A North Region first round in 2016): After two years in the old 5A North Region, the Raiders return to Class 5, Region B, having to battle the same big dogs Lee-Davis does to try to claim one of eight postseason bids in a fifteen-team region. Atlee, under second-year head coach Matt Gray, will have to do so with a youth movement after major losses to graduation in June.
One major returnee is at quarterback as sophomore Tyler Warren returns. The lefty has grown and can pose problems for opposing defenses with both his size and strength. But his offensive line must provide him enough time in the pocket to develop a rhythm and flow for Atlee to be able to fully blossom offensively, blending the pass and the run.
The run will be led by returning junior Isaac Abel, an impressive specimen (6’2”, 230) who was part of a triumvirate of running backs last year. Abel can, and should, be the workhorse this year, as the Raiders will count on him to control possessions and keep opposing offenses off the field. Cameron Foreman and Cason Gardner are Warren’s larger targets at wide receiver at 6’3” and 6’4” respectively, while John Johnson will work the inside routes. Ryan Konecny and Alex Oliver could see time at receiver as well.
Robbie Adelstein will anchor young lines, joined by Jacob Magner, Josh Chartier, Dylan Brooker and Brendan Nielsen. Abel will spend time at defensen end. Defensively, the key may lie with middle linebacker Hayden Moore. Moore’s experience both as a player and a leader could help a very young defense grow up before Gray’s eyes. Abel, Dominic Mell, and Will Belvin will join Moore in the heart of the defense, while Johnson and Warren will man the secondary with Omar Bryson and Kyle Beck and Raymond Luckey in the mix.
The Raiders have a recent history of excellent kickers, and junior Brian Marcos will look to continue that, giving Atlee a much needed option for points whenever they approach the red zone.
Atlee gets two home games to begin the season, hosting Deep Run Thursday night, then Mills Godwin September 8. Perhaps no team in the county needs a 2-0 start more than the young Raiders. A trip to Douglas Freeman follows, then they finish September at Armstrong and home to Patrick Henry before an October gauntlet that includes trips to Henrico and two-time defending state champion Highland Springs.
Anyone in Class 5, Region B that wants a playoff spot must win, at minimum five games, and likely six. With Deep Run, Mills Godwin and Douglas Freeman also in that region, it places even more importance on the Raiders’ early schedule.
NOTE: The Patrick Henry at Caroline game can be heard Friday night at 6:30 p.m. on WHAN Radio (102.9 FM/1430 AM) and online at www.hanovercountysports.net. The Lee-Davis at Mills Godwin game Thursday night can be heard at 7:15 p.m. exclusively online also at www.hanovercountysports.net.