At the end of tonight’s 2019 football opener between Franklin County and Liberty-Bedford, the Eagles, who open their season with consecutive road games, will learn whether or not a dubious three-peat is in play.
With a victory, not only will the Eagles break an 8-8 stalemate in an all-time series that dates to 1964, they’ll end a two-game losing streak in the series and they’ll prevent the possibility of a third straight 0-3 start.
“We want to not start off the season in a hole,’’ fifth-year Eagles sideline boss J.R. Edwards said.
Oddly enough, those win-less starts yielded playoff appearances for the Eagles with last year’s postseason venture producing a 14-0 shut-out victory at home over Clover Hill, their first playoff victory since 2011.
FCHS’s 7-5 finish a year ago stopped a streak on six losing seasons, campaigns where 4-6
(2012), 4-6 (2013), 1-9 (2014), 0-10 (2015), 4-6 (2016) and 4-7 (2017) records were registered.
A year ago, the Eagles were 0-3 after three games and 2-4 after six games. Then, they responded with a five-game winning streak, a run that was stymied in a 42-7 loss to Colonial Forge in the Class 6 Region B semifinals.
Eight of the 10 opponents FCHS faces during the regular season qualified for postseason play a year ago. Lord Botetourt, won a regional championship and was bested by the eventual state champion in Class 3, Liberty, E.C. Glass and Northside, each was defeated in a regional title game.
A return to postseason play runs through a new district as FCHS makes its debut in the Blue Ridge this fall. To make postseason, the Eagles will have to finish in the top eight of an 11-team Class 6 Region A which features teams from Richmond and Virginia Beach.
In Region B, seven of the eight teams qualified for postseason. In 2017, the Eagles were the sixth seed; in 2018, they were the No. 4 seed, which earned them a home game.
“I’m all for earning the postseason,’’ Edwards said. “Anything else, I think, waters down the hard work of the teams that make it.’’
FCHS is at a disadvantage schedule-wise, not because of the talent or reputations of its opponents, but because of their classifications. Of the 10 teams, one is Class 5 (William Fleming), two are Class 4 (Salem and E.C. Glass) and the rest are Class 3 (Liberty, Hidden Valley, Magna Vista, Staunton River, Lord Botetourt, Northside and William Byrd).
“The schedule could hurt us (with the points) if everyone else does .500 or better,’’ Edwards said. “We have the same opportunity as everyone else. If we’re 7-3 and ranked ninth in the region), we’d be a victim of mathematics. We have to choose that, otherwise we’d have to travel to Northern Virginia and Richmond to play our weekly games. That’s not going to happen. We can’t do that.
“The bottom line is that it falls in our hands,’’ Edwards said. “If we get to the playoffs, we’ll know we belong....We control what we can control.’’
If the Eagles return to postseason play for a third year in a row, it would match the efforts of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 clubs that were guided by former head coach Chris Jones. Those squads were 3-3 in the playoffs; the 2002, 2003, 2005, 2017 and 2018 teams were 1-5.
The Eagles will be directed by their third different quarterback in three years. Past signal callers Kaleb Smith and Shane Grindstaff each steered playoff clubs before moving on to college football at the non-scholarship NCAA Division III level.
Junior Joshua Luckett, who saw junior varsity action behind center each of the past two seasons, takes over the starting role, but he was being pushed in preseason by freshman back-up Eli Foutz, who led Benjamin Franklin Middle School to an undefeated championship season before finishing the year with the jayvee squad.
Returning tailback Jayron Smith, who gained 1,000 yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns despite missing several games because of an injury, returns for his junior year. In his fourth varsity game, he broke Alexander Keys’ single-game rushing record when he gained 310 yards on the ground in the Eagles’ first 2018 triumph, a 41-7 non-district rout of Hidden Valley.
Smith totaled 213 of those yards in a first half that saw the Eagles scored 20 of those 41 points.
Two freshmen should see playing time in the backfield: Ke’Shawn Wright and Jahylen Lee.
Edwards (15-28 record) said he considers several of his freshmen as “swing players” – performers slated to compete in both junior varsity and varsity games this season.
“We’re trying to develop them for whatever this year brings, then next year,’’ Edwards said during preseason.
The tailback corps has been slow to fathom that blocking is as much of a priority as rushing the football, Edwards said.
“We’ve got to start blocking better. We don’t seem to understand that blocking is part (of playing the position). If we don’t (block), we won’t carry the ball, it’s that simple,’’ Edwards said.
“Young backs have the tendency of going hard when they have the ball. Good football doesn’t work that way. In good football, you go hard on your fakes, you go hard on your blocking….We can’t approach things with a half-speed mentality,’’ Edwards said. “…We’ve got to develop real, Friday night backs.
“With skill kids, you’ve got to groom them (to be physical),’’ Edwards said. “Skill kids have a tendency to get lazy, but that’s every team everywhere.’’
FCHS’s receiving corps includes Jacob Stockton, Chase Austin, Brian Cromwell and Garrett Garman.
Along the line are sophomore returnee Eli Davis, junior Amillian Holland, sophomore Tristan Adams, sophomores Broclk Young and junior Owen Donald and senior Evan Switzer. Senior Lukas Spencer has moved to tight end.
William Hairston anchors the defensive line, a group that ends Ty Ermini and Bryson Chrisman.
Returning seniors Hunter Cannaday and Parker Scott are the inside linebackers and Brian Cromwell is on the outside.
Chase Austin, Elijah Belcher and Jamerise Holland are the corner backs. Stockton, Anthony Belcher and Chandler Holley are the safeties. Returning senior Tyshaun Zeigler broke his shoulder in preseason his expected return is for sixth game, FCHS’s Blue Ridge District opener at Staunton River.
Holley handles the placekicking duties, while Holland kicks off and Luckett is the punter.
“I’m excited to get going and see what we can do,’’ Edwards said. “...In the Blue Ridge District, we’ll see more physical football — if you don’t stop it, (those teams) will run all night. It’s a very physical league in nature. There are a lot more tight ends that block down; they’ll be big and physical and some of them can catch the football.
There are two other new coaches in the Blue Ridge besides Edwards: one at Staunton River and one at William Byrd, Edwards’ alma mater.
Preseason reports indicate that the Golden Eagles have abandoned the single wing, an offense that brought them great success in 2016 and 2017.
“The big word I used when I got here was process — our process had to be fixed. Last year’s seniors and this year’s seniors have committed to that process. In the weight room, our (strength) numbers are back to where we can at least compete with the people we’re playing.
“The finished product is four-years of the weight room, improvements in team speed. It’s the process of doing things right. Our process has gotten better, but I think it’s still a big battle, a country battle with kids committing consistently to the grind. Without that, you are not going to repeat year after year after year,’’ Edwards said.
“Talent comes and goes, but the work ethic stays,’’ Edwards said. “Football is a hard game and you’ve got to work; if you want to work, we’re open arms, join the team.’’