Wood, Sherando ready for emotional football opener

STEPHENS CITY — After the final seconds ticked off of James Wood’s 36-20 win over Sherando on April 20, Warriors linebacker/running back Aydan Willis was in no hurry to leave the field after the final game of the team’s four-game spring campaign.
“I sat there and watched them celebrate the whole time,” said Willis inside the halls of Sherando on Tuesday afternoon. “I kept it in my mind, because I knew Friday would come. I’m ready to get that revenge.”
While the rest of the Class 4 Northwestern District won’t play a district foe until Week 5 at the earliest, James Wood and Sherando get a rivalry matchup right away in tonight’s football season opener at Arrowhead Stadium. Neither team would have it any other way.
When James Wood and Sherando announced that they were moving their annual game from the sixth game of the season to Week 1 beginning in 2017, the schools’ coordinators of student activities hoped it would be something for the community be excited about.
A lot of fans probably did like the idea, but the ensuing three season-opening games didn’t produce exciting results. Since losing to the Colonels in their first ever-matchup in 1993, Sherando has owned series with James Wood, winning 28 of 29 contests through the 2019 season. The 2017 and 2018 season openers were the two most lopsided games in series history (the Warriors won 58-8 and 65-6, respectively) and the 2019 game proved to be another rout, with Sherando winning 49-12.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw the Sherando-James Wood dynamic off completely. When the teams met on April 20, the Colonels knew plenty about Sherando, which was looking to cap a 4-0 season. The Warriors knew practically nothing about James Wood, which was playing its season opener after having to cancel its first two games.
James Wood changed things up by using wideout Jaden Ashby in the Wildcat formation (nine carries, 182 yards and three TDs) and the Colonels had five takeaways while committing just one turnover to beat Sherando for the first time since 2008.
It left a bad taste in Sherando’s mouth and lifted the spirits of a James Wood program that since 2010 had just one winning season (6-4 in 2019). While the Colonels haven’t handled the Week 1 spotlight well against Sherando in recent years, this year they more than welcome the chance to show that their April victory was no isolated incident.
“It boosted our whole program a lot,” James Wood senior lineman Ronan Solosky said. “Everybody’s a lot more intense, especially for this week. Hopefully, we’ll come out and do the same thing again. It’s just all about working together. That’s how we beat them last year, by working together as a team and the coaches coaching us up right.”
As the Colonels ran sprints at the end of Monday’s practice, Ashby yelled “This is the biggest game of the year!” to help his teammates through them.
James Wood coach Ryan Morgan said while the Warriors might have had a better team in recent years, one of the reasons why the scores became so lopsided is because the Colonels had no memories of success against Sherando when things didn’t go their way. The Warriors would grab the momentum and James Wood couldn’t reverse it.
“I think the kids and the community have a little more confidence, and hopefully that carries over to the adversity of the game,” Morgan said. “Going into halftime, if things aren’t going quite right, the kids can still believe in themselves rather than getting down on themselves or having too much doubt.”
Morgan said opening with Sherando probably helped with his team’s offseason focus after dealing with the stress of COVID-19.
“When you have a big challenge ahead of you, you can’t really afford to lose that focus,” Morgan said. “We had good dedication in the offseason.”
Sherando never seems to have a problem with focus — the Warriors haven’t had a losing season since 2002 — but successful programs like to be challenged. Losing to the Colonels was not a good feeling, and they don’t want to repeat it.
“We ended our season in April, and we got right back to work,” Sherando senior quarterback Dylan Rodeffer said. “It was a long grind this summer, but I think our team really came together. We’re ready to show what we’ve got on Friday.”
“I think anytime you end the season in a way you didn’t want to, that also helps transition things into the offseason,” first-year Sherando head coach Jake Smith said. “I think our kids, just mentally, are different. They want to be prepared. They’ve been working really hard all summer and all fall camp. I think that’s just who this group is.”
Though Smith likes his team’s work ethic and it has performed well in its scrimmages, he’d like to see more of a complete performance from his team tonight. In the opening scrimmage against Independence, Smith said he thought his team made some mental mistakes, but he liked his team’s physicality. In the second scrimmage against Meridian, he thought the team had a strong mental approach but wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be physically.
For Sherando’s defense, the biggest key will be finding ways to limit Ashby — who will have a new quarterback throwing to him in Jared Neal — after what he did in last year’s game.
“He’s a good player,” Smith said. “I think everybody knows where he is at any time, whether he’s lined up at wide receiver, or at quarterback, or as a kick returner or a punt returner. He’s definitely somebody that can change the game very quickly with his feet and athleticism. But we’ve been planning all week and working together and putting together a plan for James Wood. I think we’ll be ready on Friday night.”
Morgan said from what the Warriors have seen in scrimmages, Sherando may defend the Colonels with a 3-3 formation. In the past, the Warriors have typically favored 4-3 and 3-4 looks.
“They’re running kind of a third safety, which is something that’s not used much around here in high school,” Morgan said. “That’s going to be big for us to figure out what they’re trying to do.”
A year ago, Sherando only managed 107 rushing yards despite having a size advantage up front against the Colonels. Morgan said Sherando’s size on the line will again be a challenge for James Wood, which will have its hands full trying to limit some experienced skill position players in Rodeffer (63 of 103 for 757 yards, eight TDs, three interceptions), AJ Santiago (26 catches, 353 yards, five TDs), Cam Sullivan (81 carries, 475 yards, 2 TDs; 12 catches, 97 yards), Willis (36 carries, 174 yards, 2 TDs) and Gayyn Blye (25 carries, 157 yards, 5 TDs).
“We’re going to have to make sure we don’t have our defensive linemen running upfield and getting pushed out of their gaps, or coming too far upfield and getting kicked out by their guards and tight ends,” Morgan said.
Given that this will be the first Frederick County football game played in summer/fall in two years and the first time the Colonels will play Sherando after beating them since 2009, tonight’s game should have a much better atmosphere than the 2017-19 games.
Solosky can’t wait.
“I love opening against county rivals,” he said. “It’s great. It’s great for the county, it’s great for our schools. Ticket sales are up. It just means everything for the student bodies.”
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