After coming up one game short of a state championship last season, the Goochland Bulldogs aren’t wasting anytime wondering what could have been.
With Alex Fruth entering his second year as head coach, his team that features 13 starters from last year’s unit seems poised to make another run at the title.
But the coach isn’t taking anything for granted, and he’s approaching this season with a focus on the basics.
“We want our kids to enjoy the experience of competing and growing as athletes, which really makes things simple,” Fruth said last week.
The coach said he’s looking forward to getting his team better step-by-step, one day at a time.
“We don’t get caught looking ahead; we focus on the process of getting better each day,” Fruth said. “And these guys have really bought into that idea. Every day matters in the process of improving as a team or in their individual growth. And the past doesn’t matter because of this.”
That past is something the team doesn’t discuss, but the final game of last season – a 35-9 loss to Graham in the state championship – still has the power to motivate.
“It still stings a little. We know what it takes to win a state championship,” said senior Devin McCray, who is beginning his fourth year as a varsity starter for the Bulldogs. “We’re coming back this year to play better and harder.
McCray could hold the key to a repeat run to the final as he foregoes his final season under center to return to wingback and anywhere else that allows him to get his hands on the ball.
That means sophomore CJ Towles returns to a familiar position taking snaps for the Bulldogs as the new starting quarterback.
“I feel good about stepping up and taking over for Devin so he can help the team out in other ways,” Towles said. “We’re looking forward to coming out and playing hard every play this year.”
Fruth said Towles is ready for the job.
“The development of CJ Towles at QB provides us this change of roles. CJ started the last two games last year at QB and is a guy that really wants to learn the ins and outs of the game,” Fruth said. “He studies film as much as any guy we have and asks the why and how of what we do and why we do it.”
Even with the 13 returning starters, there are still questions regarding this year’s starting lineup, especially on the offensive line. Up front, they lost three players who had played many games wearing the Bulldog uniform. The returning players on the line are Connor Duncan and Le’Shon Washington.
“We need guys to step up and fill those voids,” Fruth said. “The guys stepping up need to learn quickly and gel as a group during camp and our scrimmages.”
Fruth also has concerns regarding his graduation-depleted linebacking corps, but last Friday’s scrimmage with Louisa provided some positive feedback for both units.
“Our offensive line showed its lack of experience at times, but also improved as the night went on,” Fruth said. “Our linebackers improved as the night went on and they adjusted to the speed of the game.”
The Bulldogs should remain solid with a strong running game that features a number of returning players. With the shift of Devin to running back, they expect to have several weapons at the RB position. Quincy Snead, McCray, Kam Holman, Hunter Willms and Dakhari Burgess should all get touches throughout the season, Fruth said. He added that Burgess and Conner Popielarz also provide them with weapons at fullback, thereby helping them to rotate players in and out.
Kam Holman will lead a wide-receiver-by-committee crew.
“Kam could have a really explosive year,” the coach said.
The defensive line remains strong, deep in experience and game-tested for the upcoming season.
“This may be our deepest position group,” Fruth said, noting that they’re returning two student-athletes who have “played a ton of meaningful snaps” in De’Andre Robinson and Khalil Holman, while adding that they have players whom they expect will rotate in and out and should provide them with two or three groups to work with.
They’re also returning the key members of the defensive backfield from last year: McCray, Kam Holman, Snead, and Towles, who all started and played throughout the season for the Bulldogs at both the corner and safety positions. The coach expects that experience to make them a seasoned group that can produce big plays.
“These guys are going to make plays for us in the passing game,” Fruth said, “but they also are a solid group that should provide a ton of run support.”
The kicking game is young and untested, but should improve as the season progresses, according to the coach.
It’s early in the process, but Fruth is optimistic that the pieces will fit in the puzzle by opening night against Lafayette. The Rams will host the Bulldogs on Friday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m. at Wanner Stadium in Williamsburg.
“While we return a ton of our skill kids, everything depends on how the offensive line and defensive line/linebackers develop and play,” Fruth said. “If we can develop these positions, stay healthy and deal with the general grind of a football season, we can make some noise in our new classification.”