POWHATAN – Over the last 17 months, normalcy has been a hard thing to find. When it comes to high school sports, some sense of it has already returned. Varsity teams in Virginia did get to resume play in the first half of this year; however, they did so with new restrictions in place, and with shorter seasons. In the case of the fall sports teams, they competed during a completely different time of year from what they've been used to.
But now, the Virginia High School League’s traditional athletic year is back. Summer practices are under way. Scrimmages are coming up. VHSL golf teams’ seasons have already started.
And the state’s football teams are embracing the opportunity to play 10 regular-season games again.
For Powhatan football, kickoff for the new regular season will take place on Thursday, Sept. 2.
“These kids really need a regular season, a regular school year,” said Powhatan head football coach Mike Henderson. “People want to be a part of stuff again after being shut in for a year. People are excited about joining a team and being part of something.”
This spring was a bittersweet one for Powhatan. While the Indians went 4-2 in the 2020-21 football season, which had been moved from the fall to the spring and condensed to six regular-season games because of the COVID pandemic, the two losses that they took – a turnover-laden contest against Manchester, and a setback to Monacan in which Powhatan was missing several players due to sickness and injury – were enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
“Last year, we felt like we were really, truly one of the better teams in the area, and to not have a chance to be able to compete in the playoffs was a tough pill to swallow for a lot of these guys, myself included,” Henderson said. “Some of those guys are gone. Some of them are back. I think we just want to have a chance to try to compete against schools our level in the playoffs.”
But first, Class 4 Powhatan will look to secure its playoff spot in a 10-week slate featuring six teams that are in Classes 5 and 6.
“We want to compete and battle and win some games,” Henderson said, “and then…when we get into the playoffs against teams our size, we’ll see what we can do.”
Henderson expects a terrific season from senior and starting running back Mitchell Johnson, who shined as the team’s leading rusher across the past two seasons. His highlights include a gem of a performance against Clover Hill this spring when he carried the ball 30 times for 177 yards, two touchdowns and the game-winning two-point conversion rush in Powhatan’s 43-42 triple-overtime triumph. Henderson also spoke to plans to get him more involved in the passing game this fall.
Senior linebacker Andrew Cheatham also gives Powhatan depth at the running back position. The three-sport athlete needed only five carries to churn out 104 yards in this year’s win over Cosby, and he added 55 yards and a key touchdown in the Indians’ season-ending victory over Midlothian.
Senior linebacker Chase Gayness will play fullback when he’s on offense, and senior Zack Warinner will shift between the fullback, H-back and tight end roles.
Henderson said that Warinner has never missed a workout and has shown up for everything across the past two years.
“We’re pretty excited about what he can do for us,” Henderson said.
Among the receivers, the team will be looking for big things from Ethan Dowdy – who has had a tremendous summer according to Henderson – and anytime Fisher Hamersley has been called upon on over the last couple years, he’s stepped up in a big way.
Henderson added that Jason Worthington is super dependable; he was a key player on JV two years ago, and when he was called on in spots for varsity this spring, he’d deliver, like when he caught a crucial touchdown pass in the game against Clover Hill.
“He’s just a guy who does his job every single game, every single practice, every single day,” Henderson said of Worthington. “He’s a super important part of what we’re doing.”
The receiving rotation could also feature seniors Mehki Langhorn and Lin Wood. Henderson noted that Langhorn might be able to not only rotate onto the field as a receiver and/or cornerback, but could also potentially get into the mix as a starter.
“He really is going to fill a role for us on both sides of the ball, and some special teams,” Henderson said.
He added of Wood: “Lin is a guy who’s really smart – he knows all of our offense – so he could play any one of the spots – Y, Z, A or X.”
While the offensive line will feature several new starters and linemen who will be playing both ways, the potential and talent is abundant up front. Henderson said that returning starter and senior Tanner Palmore, who received an offer from Hampden-Sydney in June, is one of the best guards, if not the best, in the area.
“He’s a terrific football player, so we have a real strong guy to build around up front,” Henderson said.
Starting left tackle and senior Mitch Bolt, coming off of shoulder surgery, should be cleared to return by week 2. Bolt, whom Henderson praised as a really good player, started every game as a sophomore at offensive tackle and last year started at defensive end.
Ashton Tingle could start at center, but the coaches are comfortable with both Tingle and junior Ricky Huber starting at that position. Should Huber start at center, Henderson said Tingle, whom he noted is one of their top linemen, will still start and will move to a different position.
Newcomer and sophomore Josh Wade will start at left guard. Henderson said that he’s a “big, tough kid – good football player” and had made progress within the team’s first five summer practices.
“We’re expecting big things from him as a left guard,” Henderson said of Wade. “He’s got a lot of potential.”
The offensive line’s rotation, if not the starting lineup, should also feature defensive lineman Zack Karanian and linebacker Wyatt Lowe, both seniors. Players like senior Robbie Watson and 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior Wyatt Groseclose could also make an impact on the line.
As far as the signal caller is concerned, the team’s confidence is very high when it comes to junior quarterback Dylan Trevillian, who is new to the starting role but is not new to the program or to the position.
“He throws a tremendous football. He’s really a true quarterback,” Henderson said. “Anytime you’re new and you’re coming into a team that’s starting a lot of seniors at every position…it’s a new process, but he’s getting every rep. He’s getting a ton of practice time...this year Dylan’s really thrived with getting the reps and getting the chance to be in charge and be running the show, so to speak.”
Schematically for the offense, the team’s focus will be on putting the best personnel on the field and keeping the opposing defense guessing. And with 47 players on the roster, the offense’s formations should vary – the team won’t always line up with three receivers, one tight end and one running back, Henderson said. The team also hopes that it can be more balanced between the running game and the passing game this fall.
Defensively, Powhatan brings back both a linebacker core and a secondary that delivered dominating performances in games last spring. So far, senior First Team All-Metro player Wyatt Lowe and his fellow senior linebacker Chase Gayness have started in every single game since their freshman year, and in addition to their tackling prowess, they’ve shown they can make plays wherever they are on the field. Lowe scored a rushing touchdown at fullback (in addition to making 15 tackles) in Powhatan’s season-opening win over L.C. Bird in late February, and Gayness returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown in the following game against Manchester.
“Unbelievable guys, unbelievable players,” Henderson said of Lowe and Gayness. “They complement each other so well. They’re tough. They’re leaders of our team. They’re both inside linebackers, and what team has two 230- or 240-pound middle linebackers that can run and do it all? Not too many. Pretty lucky and blessed to have those guys.”
Powhatan’s pass defense put the exclamation mark on their spring season in the team’s win over Midlothian, as returning players Hamersley (2), Gayness (2) and Dowdy (1) accounted for the Indians’ five interceptions in that game.
Henderson praised Dowdy and Hamersley as lockdown corners, but with both players also expected to lead the receivers, and free safety Jason Worthington taking on an increased role on offense, the team is working to develop depth behind those players.
Potential contributors include sophomore Nathaniel Yarhouse, who has looked good in summer practice, as well as Jaden Cabaniss, who was a standout safety on JV.
The secondary’s starting four are rounded out by junior Landon Hutchinson, who started every game this spring and will play at strong safety.
Josh Little, who has been around the football team and has helped out in different capacities over the last two years, decided to come out as a player for his junior year. Henderson said he’s now competing for a second-string spot as a cornerback, and also for a chance to see some playing time at wide receiver.
“He’s just a cool kid who’s working hard,” Henderson said.
The talent of outside linebackers Oscar Whitely, who is coming up from JV, and Andrew Cheatham, who had a big spring on varsity, could lead to the traditionally 4-2-5 defense making some plays out of the 3-4 formation, with the coaches saying that “those are two really good football players who need to be on the field” according to Henderson.
Mitchell Johnson also gives the defense some down-the-line depth should he ever need to play at the outside linebacker position.
Similar to the offensive side, the defensive line will mostly feature new starters, but will also return Zack Karanian, who started in every game for Powhatan last season and, like Palmore, has received an offer from Hampden-Sydney. Henderson praised Karanian’s immense strength – “he is a legit 400-plus-pound bencher in high school,” he said – as well as how he has played this summer.
“We’re looking for huge things from him on both sides of the ball,” Henderson said.
Playing at the nose guard position will be 330-pound senior Miller Kiernan, who after playing in a rotational role last season is now taking over inside completely.
“We are looking forward to him having a big year for us inside,” Henderson said.
The other defensive tackle position could mainly feature two-way player Palmore, but the coaches are looking for players like Watson and Zach Smith to rotate into a role on the defensive line, if not become starters.
The other defensive end position will likely be held down by Tingle. Henderson praised his commitment and dedication.
“He just quietly does his job and does it well every day,” Henderson said, complimenting Tingle’s toughness and dependability.
Groseclose – who hasn’t missed a workout all summer, Henderson said – and junior Clayton Jones could also make an impact on the defensive side.
Overview: Special teams
While the team graduated Mason Pinnell – who went to Averett University as a college football kicker – and versatile player Micah Holt – who is also set to attend and play for Averett – across the last two years, Powhatan continues to remain strong at the kicker position.
In fact, the Indians may have depth at the position that few other schools in Virginia can boast.
Their current starter is junior Tucker Thomas, who was the JV kicker last year and played in goal on Powhatan’s varsity soccer team this spring. Henderson said he’s worked the whole summer both with the team’s kicking coach and on his own, and he’s also attended several camps.
“He’s improved tremendously both kicking and punting,” Henderson said.
But when junior Andrew VanSlyke, a transfer from Riverbend, returns from injury, he will give Powhatan another powerful option both in the kicking and punting game. Henderson said VanSlyke has “had a booming leg and he really has done some good stuff” in practice.
In addition to those two players, senior Hans Rehme returns to the team in the roles of kicker, punter and holder.
Concerns and strengths
Henderson’s biggest concern is that the players stay healthy, and the Indians will look to answer the following questions as the season progresses: how much and how far will the team depth develop? How quickly can the depth players – several of whom are inexperienced at the varsity level – get up to speed? And how quickly can the offensive and defensive lines come together?
“It’s nice that we’re looking at having probably three senior starters – perhaps four –but again, only one of those guys started last year,” Henderson said of the offensive line. “It is going to take a little bit of time for those guys to gel, no doubt. How quickly it comes around is going to be a big part of how fast of a start we can get honestly. We can’t wait five games and fall into a hole before the offensive line gels.”
But when opening night arrives, the team’s varsity experience across the skills positions and in spots on the line, the players’ commitment to the game and the chemistry between the teammates should be among Powhatan’s strengths.
“A lot of these guys have played together since Little League, which is just one of the neatest things about this team…this community,” Henderson said. “These guys have known each other and grew up playing football together since they were little, which just makes this bond so strong – and it’s why it’s awesome being here.”
This still won’t be a normal, pre-COVID year as was the previous hope. As COVID cases are back on the rise, social distancing is still being practiced, meetings are held on the field, the team is wearing masks when the group is inside, and everyone’s trying to spend as little time as possible in the locker room.
“We’re doing what we can – it’s way better than it was last spring,” Henderson said, “but it’s still not normal.”
But for now, the scheduling – the summer practices, the upcoming scrimmages and 10 regular-season games, the return of football in the fall – those things, at least, are all back to how they used to be.
“To be able to put together a season of summer practice through the end of the year without missing games or scrimmages due to people being sick on our team or another team or missing games…having a regular year, in a way, that’s going to make it successful,” Henderson said. “Now, if we did that and went 0-10, I don’t think we’re going to consider that real successful, but if we can do that, be competitive, enjoy coming here every day and win some games is kind of the icing on the cake.”
At the same time, none of the players have been coming to practices every day and have gone to workouts every day since May just to say, “We’re just hopeful we get to play some games,” as Henderson put it.
“We want to win some football games,” Henderson said. “Big-picture story is nice and you look back on that when you’re older and say how great that was, but right now, our goal for this year is to win football games and make the playoffs, and then we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”