Four straight Sussex County Warhawks losses greatly diminished the team’s playoff chances, but with proper execution in their regular-season finale against the New Castle Knights and a little bit of luck, that dream might have become reality.
The Warhawks easily downed the Knights, 26-0, but the effort would be to no avail. The Talbot County Warriors secured the fourth and final wildcard playoff spot after defeating the Queen Anne Thunder, 18-6, on April 1.
Despite missing the playoffs, again, for the sixth straight year, the Warhawks also registered an identical record to last year’s season, at 3-5. The only thing that separates the two year’s teams is the level of commitment by the Warhawk players.
“Last year, we controlled our own destiny (to get into the playoffs) going into the second to last game and we lost — and in the final game had only 13 guys show up,” explained offensive coordinator, and last year’s head coach, Butch Yocum. “I was really impressed this year. We had 29 show up instead of 13. We might have the same record — just without the quitters.”
The Warhawks might have just missed the playoffs this year, but they sure looked like they belonged – especially after falling into an offensive funk the past few weeks. The Warhawks capitalized on four Knight turnovers and converted each into six points.
Quarterback Tony Eskridge tossed a 47-yard touchdown pass to wide-out Josh Ward as part of his 148-yard passing day and completed a two-point conversion to give the Warhawks an 8-0 lead. Eskridge could’ve had two touchdown passes but a Torrez Spence fumble inside the Knights’ 3-yard line negated the 65-yard completion early in the first quarter.
That was the juncture where the Warhawks established themselves as a contender in the future. In other games this season, they might’ve quit or gotten down on themselves — but not this time.
“When that happens, you start to see heads go down, like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ But we’d been here before and got our heads together and won together,” said head coach John Boyer.
Runningback Martin Frantois punched in two rushing touchdowns (one and two yards out) and added 31 rushing yards on 11 carries. Running back/defensive back Darnell Strand added 33 yards, including three first-down carries on only six attempts. He also ripped off a 62-yard interception return for the Warhawks’ fourth and final touchdown.
The Warhawks committed one penalty at the start of the game but tightened up from there. Penalties in the red zone killed the Warhawks in a number of games this season, so this was the team’s first game with near perfect execution.
Defensively, the Warhawks bent but didn’t break. They allowed 117 rushing yards on 24 attempts for a healthy 4.9 yards per carry but were able to force the turnovers (three fumbles and one interception). Their aggressive defense tallied two sacks but also yielded five off-sides penalties.
Boyer credited their anxiousness as youthful inexperience and zeal — something that has hindered them at times this season but nonetheless is something that they’re cultivating for the future.
“We have a lot of returning players for next season,” Boyer said. “We’re trying to keep the same nucleus for next year.”
Of 29 players, only Frantois is uncertain if he’ll return. “I think he found out this league is a little tougher than that arena league,” Boyer speculated.
Whether or not Frantois returns, the Warhawks should be in a position next year to compete in the playoffs.
They’ll return much if not all of the starting offensive and defensive lines but are also looking for depth in the future. Dump-truck-sized tight end Devon Briggs, 19, will make the change to defensive tackle next year after dropping four first-down passes over the past three weeks, so the Warhawks are in the market for a pass-catching tight end that can block, in addition to a runningback or two.
Eskridge proved he could make all the throws at quarterback after moving from tight end last year and it won’t hurt that he’ll have his top two targets — Spence and Ward — back next year. But they are looking for a proven backup. The Warhawks went without Eskridge against the Warriors and paid for it dearly, losing 20-6, because they didn’t have a true quarterback.
“Nothing against Cleveland (Lacii), but he just isn’t a quarterback,” Yocum said. “We need a guy that knows how to read a defense.”
Defensively, the Warhawks need help in the secondary and at outside linebacker, and may have already shored up those positions with veteran players. Six-year Diamond Football League veteran middle linebacker Tremond Conway took this season off to let his body recuperate but will return next year, allowing former Wesley linebacker Chris Horsey to move to the strong-side outside backer position.
“I had a three-hour phone conversation with Tremond and he’s ready to play,” Yocum said. “He’s already getting ready for next year. He has the defensive playbook and is working on getting us a sponsor.”
Safety Dedrick “Spider” Jones and former quarterback Jason Rust indicated to Yocum that they’ll each return next year to play safeties.
“Jason didn’t want to play quarterback this year but wants to play strong safety next year,” Yocum said.
Both additions would allow former All-State and All-Conference cornerback Strand to move back to the position that made him famous, leaving Leroy Jenkins, Lacii Cleveland and Eric Davis to battle for the second corner spot.
Lastly, the Warhawks have searched high and low for a soccer-style kicker and may have found him. Current DFL commissioner George Maer holds the Mason-Dixon League record for the longest field goal kicked — a 63-yarder — and is tentatively playing for the Warhawks next season.
Four seasons ago, Maer’s 63-yard field goal gave the Wicomico Stallions a 3-0 win and their first victory of the season. The Warhawks missed two field goals inside the red zone against the Baltimore Nightmare, so Maer is a welcomed addition — especially since they missed the playoffs by one game.
As the Warhawks didn’t make the playoffs again this year — they’ve decided to freshen up a bit by changing their name to the Sussex County Punishers. And instead of maroon and silver, they’ll wear green and gold.
The Punishers will start mini-camp the second and third weeks of July to get players re-accustomed to the playbooks. They’ll have mandatory conditioning for a two-week period, starting on Aug. 1.