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HILLSVILLE –– Just four times in the 14 years under the direction of Tom Hale has Carroll County finished a football season with a losing record. In those 14 seasons the Cavaliers have finished at .500 or better 10 times, which is once more than in the program’s first 29 years.
But two of those four losing records have come in the past two years.
As the old saying goes, to win football games one must be able to run, and be able to stop the run. Carroll County has put up impressive aerial statistics the past two seasons, including a record-setting effort last year by both quarterback Connor Lundy and receiver Chris Smoot, but no Cavalier averaged as much as 32 yards per game rushing the football.
Defensively the Cavaliers allowed an average of 30.8 points in their eight losses. To be fair, all eight of those teams eventually made the playoffs and half of those teams advanced at least as far as the second round. The road will be no easier this year as Carroll makes the move to the River Ridge District as a 4A school under the VHSL's realignment plan (see story, Page 2F).
Any guesses as to the Cavaliers’ points of emphasis in the preseason? If you said ‘re-establishing a rushing attack and tightening up the defense,’ give yourself a gold star.
Carroll County emerged with a lot of optimism from its first scrimmage at Emory & Henry College against Tazewell, Central-Wise and a Fort Chiswell team that many predict could make a run at a state title this year. That optimism was dampened by a 41-point benefit game loss, but the initial scrimmage did prove that progress has been made, on both sides of the ball.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we can throw the ball, but we’ve got to be able to run it,” said Hale. “Against every team we played [at Emory] we could run it, both inside and out.
“Defensively our front four guys were physical. They did a good job for us and the basis of our philosophy was to stop the run, and we did that. Two runs came out on us for more than five yards, all night. Both of those were Fort Chiswell, and I can’t imagine the 4A teams that we have to play having an offensive line that is any bigger or better than what Fort had.”
Carroll County returns five regulars on an offense that Hale categorizes as a type of hybrid wing-T. The Cavaliers will go unbalanced at times, utilize a pistol look and search for opportunities to outflank their opponents.
Lundy will lead the offense as a third-year starter at quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound senior set a school passing record last year that was the product of both ability and necessity. Lundy threw for 1,723 yards last year for a program that for many seasons averaged fewer than 10 pass attempts per game. But Lundy’s top two receivers, Chris Smoot (47 catches, 792 yards) and Taylor Case (35-426) have graduated.
“We feel like Connor will be a big key for us,” Hale said. “He’s almost 200 pounds now [up from 181 a year ago] and with us being more of a hybrid wing-T, with him in a pistol formation, he’s going to be another back to contend with because he’s going to carry the ball 10 or 12 times a game. We’ve got to incorporate him in that to make teams keep people in the box to account for him.”
Aside from Lundy, nearly all of the Cavaliers’ skill positions will be filled by newcomers. Duncan Reece is the lone exception. A 6-7 senior wideout, Reece will be a big target for Lundy this fall.
Hale commented several times on the mental toughness of this year’s team, including halfbacks Ethan Underwood and Josh Blankenship, who had no qualms about churning out some physical yardage in the Cavs’ first scrimmage. Hale said that part of the reason for last year’s low rushing numbers was poor blocking in the backfield, and he foresees Underwood, Blankenship and the fullbacks doing a better job in that regard.
Kirk Jones returns to football after missing his junior season and has the lead at the fullback position. He’ll be pushed by senior Kendall Edwards, a transfer from Austin (Tex.) Lake Travis High School, which won five of the last six 4A Division 1 state championships.
Hale has four of his top six returning from what was a young offensive line a year ago.
“We had a freshman and two sophomores starting,” he said. “This year they’re stronger, more mature, they’re mentally tougher and I think they’re ready for it.”
Chanz Quesenberry went from playing eighth-grade ball to being a starting guard on the varsity last year. He and fellow guard Daniel Wolford are back, and Hale said tackles Garrett Burcham and Jeremiah Mollett had a strong scrimmage.
Jared Haga and Hunter Hoback both got plenty of playing time at tight end a year ago.
Having a 1,700-yard passing attack is great, but Hale would hope for a little more balance this year.
“I think Connor would have been a 1,000-yard passer last year no matter how well we ran the ball,” he said. “Do I want to throw the ball 25 or 30 times? No. If we can rush the ball for 1,200 or 1,400 yards and Connor can pass it for that much, we’d be in pretty good shape.”
Carroll County has made changes on its defense in an effort to bring more pressure and disguise coverages. Switching to a 4-4 look, the Cavaliers will do more stunting and blitzing more often than not.
“We’re going to come after you, you just have to figure out what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it,” Hale said. “It’s going to help us being able to mix it up and not having our kids having to sit and read. Against more athletic teams we have to get after it more.”
Carroll’s defensive front was a strong point in the early scrimmage, and understandably so, with several returning players there. Haga at end and Burcham at tackle were two of the Cavaliers’ top tacklers a year ago. Jacob Adams, Hoback and Quesenberry all saw plenty of action last year. Wolford and Underwood are back at inside linebacker and Blankenship returns in the secondary.
Hale has had good things to say about Edwards at linebacker and Bronson Bowman will fill one of the corner spots after missing last season due to injury. Hale also has high hopes for Blake Dalton, a first-year senior who could be a stellar defensive back.
Chase Goins is in the lead in the special teams department. He averaged 36 yards on six punts and booted a field goal against Galax. Reece is handling the long-snapping duties but he can also be called upon to punt, having averaged better than 36 yards per kick last year.
Hale’s staff underwent a lot of turnover in the offseason and has had to replace six coaches in the past two seasons. Two left for other positions.
“It takes a lot of work and a lot of time,” Hale said. “It’s year-round now and I demand a lot out of them. I support their decisions 100 percent, but the thing is that there were no teaching positions to put [incoming] coaches in.”
Hale said his returning coaches have all picked up the slack, and he has also acquired the services of Mike Wells, a full-time minister at Victory Way Baptist who also happens to have an extensive football background.
“I just want people to know that these guys are working hard,” he said.