James Wood football aims to keep success going

zackWINCHESTER — The James Wood football team enjoyed a lot of historical benchmarks in 2021.

The Colonels made the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They won seven games for the first time since 2009. Their 340 points scored were the most in school history. Their 232 points allowed were the fewest since 2010.

James Wood only brings back four starters on offense and three on defense from that special team. But the Colonels hope the success they experienced (7-4 overall, 4-2 in the Class 4 Northwestern District) and confidence they gained in 2021 will help them continue to thrive. The Colonels practiced for the first time on Monday.

“I noticed consistency,” said James Wood junior Zach Smith when asked what the 2021 season did for the Colonels’ offseason work ethic. “I noticed a lot of players consistently coming to offseason workouts, working hard, not just coming in and standing around. We did that because we want to do better than last season.”

Smith acknowledged that there might be some skepticism about James Wood because the Colonels no longer have star wide receiver/defensive back Jaden Ashby, who will enroll at NCAA Division I Southern Utah in January of 2023. Ashby is one of seven departed James Wood players who accounted for 13 All-District selections in 2021. Five Colonels signed to play football in college this fall.

Smith — a Second Team linebacker who ranked second in the area with 117 tackles last year — and senior quarterback and Second Team selection Jared Neal (117 for 217, 1,653 yards, 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) are James Wood’s only returning All-District selections.

James Wood coach Ryan Morgan — who has 52 players in 10th through 12th grade working with the team — said while the Colonels might not have a lot of returning starters, they have a lot of people back with playing time, and are hungry to prove themselves in bigger roles.

“These guys got a good number of reps, and got to see it on film,” Morgan said. “Now, they finally get a chance, as maybe seniors, or maybe juniors, to kind of show their stuff.”

Morgan noted last year’s starting running back, Wes Brondos, only carried the ball twice in the spring of 2021. But given the opportunity to carry the load last year, Brondos — who will play rugby for the University of Tennessee this year — had 193 carries for 1,128 yards (third in the area). He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns.

The type of determination showed by Brondos is exactly what James Wood will need this season.

“If we win games, we’re going to have to outwork teams, because we’re not going to be able to rely on true athleticism,” Neal said. “But we still have guys who can still make plays.”

Neal still has ample reason to want to put the ball up in the air against opponents, even without Ashby (39 catches for 667 yards and nine TDs) and Ryan King (42 catches for 508 yards and three TDs).

Seniors Eli Miller (eight catches for 123 yards and one TD) and Andrew Link (four catches for 31 yards and a TD) are examples of athletes who could step up in their absence. Link has earned three All-State medals in the 110-meter hurdles (one) and 300 hurdles (two) in track over the past two years.

“Andrew Link played quite a bit last year, he just wasn’t targeted because we had Ryan and Jaden,” Morgan said. “Eli played quite a bit last year, especially in some of our spread sets. Those guys are ready. [Senior receiver] Matt Dueweke only played in a few games because of injury. He’s a really good lacrosse player, great leader, hard worker.”

James Wood also feels good about what it has at running back. Though the Colonels ultimately decided to lean on Brondos, Smith (five carries for 20 yards) was a candidate to see regular time in the backfield during the preseason last year. Morgan also likes the speed of junior Lane Overbaugh, who had one carry for 12 yards in the opener against Sherando but missed the rest of the season due to the injury.

The Colonels lost some talented players up front — Hunter Franks and Ronan Solosky on offense and Caleb Keefer and Brendan Cassidy on defense each earned All-District honors — but Morgan feels like there are players there who are ready to break out.

“[Offensive lineman] Jack Thompson is probably our physically-strongest all-around player,” said Morgan of the Class 4 state wrestling tournament qualifier as a heavyweight. “He started off a little bit shaky but really got better toward the end of the last season.”

Morgan liked what he saw from his players on the first day of practice, which the Colonels had been looking forward to for a lot of reasons. Because of renovations to James Wood, Monday was the first day they got to work out at the school since early July. The Colonels had been using Valley Health’s Parisi Speed School for offseason workouts.

“Over the past few years, with COVID and reconstruction here, our kids are just kind of getting used to adversity,” Morgan said. “Wherever we need to show up to work out, they’re ready to roll. And it seemed like today, they were just ready to get after it.”

James Wood will scrimmage at Hampshire (W.Va.) on Aug. 13 and host Boonsboro (Md.) in a scrimmage on Aug. 19. The Colonels open the regular season at home against Sherando on Aug. 26.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at
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