CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Eastern Hancock Royals aren’t the same team they were nine weeks ago. They’re better, unbeaten, state ranked and going back to zero.
With the regular season a 9-0 memory, the Class 2A No. 2 Royals acknowledge their recent triumph but refuse to rely on it. Not with a rematch against last year’s playoff nemesis Northeastern (7-2) at Ed Knarr Field to open Sectional 38 on Friday night.
“It’s always the next game. You’re measured on the next game, and you hope the last game is in late November,” Eastern Hancock head coach Jim O’Hara said. “This is the next game, so let’s kick it up a notch and play hard.”
Undefeated for the second time in three years, the Royals powered up the state rankings and held their own for a majority of the season, beginning with a decisive 33-7 opening week win at Northeastern on Aug. 21.
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That was then, however, and this is now.
“The first game was a lot closer than the score looked like. We got some breaks, hit some big plays. If you take those out and the game is 20-7,” O’Hara said. “In Week 1, you don’t really know anything. I think it was like that for both teams.
“Now, you have two veteran teams. Both of us have had success this year, and it will be a different ball game.”
Last year, the Royals used their Week 1 loss, 34-6, at home to Northeastern as motivation to upend the Knights 21-20 on the road in the sectional final.
Before securing its rematch last November, Eastern Hancock won seven of their next eight games to finish out the 2014 regular season. Northeastern has followed a similar map this fall, riding a six-game winning streak into the postseason.
Northeastern is averaging 24.6 points per game and allowing 11.6 behind a rushing attack that has racked up 234.6 yards every Friday night. The Knights have overwhelmed their opponents with 2,111 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns with junior Ryan Hartmann leading the team at 986 yards.
“It’s at our place instead of at their place. It’s kind of like the opposite of last year, but we’ve been practicing well, and I think we’ll be up for the challenge,” O’Hara said. “It won’t be easy … but it’s nice because it’s here and we have a strong community support.”
The Royals also possess the state’s sixth-best scoring offense in 2A at 37.56 points per game.
Winning with a balanced attack, Eastern Hancock routinely produces 176.1 yards passing and 199.6 yards rushing on offense while the defense has pitched two shut outs and held six teams to 14 points or less.
The steady maturation of sophomore quarterback Jarett Lewis (1,491 yards passing, 17 touchdowns) and the barrage of junior Devin Denny (1,109 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns) and senior Matt Bowman (492 yards, 10 touchdowns) out of the backfield has the Royals ready to run.
However, the secret to the postseason will hinge on the team’s elders, said O’Hara, who coached the Cathedral Fighting Irish to a Class 4A state championship in 2006-07.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach on quite a few state championship teams, and the key to success is your senior leadership and the younger kids respecting the senior leadership,” O’Hara said. “We’ve done that and have seen it here. Don’t look down the road, just focus.”
The game plan for Week 1 of the second season won’t be any different — with or without the “favorites” target squarely on their backs.
The goal is to go 6-0, starting now.
“For me, I look at every game as a state championship game. How are you going approach it? You have to approach each game like it’s your last game,” O’Hara said. “In this case, it is the last game if we don’t win. Our kids are hungry.”