WAGENER — Wagener-Salley is coming off its best two-year stretch in a very long time.
Back-to-back winning seasons with a pair of playoff trips were a far cry from the 2-8 campaigns that head coach Ken Tucker endured during the first two years of his tenure. But with nearly every key component from those seasons gone, Tucker and the War Eagles are left to rebuild nearly from scratch.
They’ll be doing so with just 25 or so players on the roster, not a surprising number considering 17 of the 2013 team’s 34 players were seniors.
2013 in Review
Last season was an expected peak to Tucker’s first full cycle at Wagener-Salley. The players he began with as freshman in 2010 were seniors, and many of them – Malcolm Stroman, Eric Corley, R.J. Tyler, Santrale Moore and others – were the main cogs.
Led by that core, the War Eagles went 7-4 and hosted a playoff game, but they lost that game to region foe Ridge Spring-Monetta.
While Tucker acknowledged losing the game wasn’t the desired result, just hosting a postseason contest was a big step.
“We were happy we finally got a home playoff game,” he said. “It had been a while.”
The season wasn’t a complete loss, though. In addition to the team success, Corley rushed for more than 1,300 yards with 19 touchdowns, while Stroman accounted for more than 1,800 combined yards rushing and passing.
In the spring, Tyler – a defensive end and tight end for the War Eagles – signed to play at Charlotte, and Moore – a lineman – signed on with Limestone.
Statistically, there aren’t many players coming back that made a mark for the War Eagles in 2013.
The lone holdout is junior Ke’Aunri Holmes. Spelling Corley last season, Holmes accumulated more than 470 yards and five touchdowns on the ground and caught a 25-yard touchdown pass while intercepting two passes on defense with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to go with 16 tackles.
Tucker said Holmes is expected to provide “consistency,” particularly on offense.
“He’s got a little bit of experience,” Tucker said. “He’ll hopefully give us a big play threat.”
Wagener-Salley also returns offensive linemen Jerrel Swedenburg, Justin Flowers and Shyheim Jones, and they’ll be needed to help protect Holmes and the other Wagener-Salley backs.
“Having to rebuild everything else, hopefully it’ll give us something to build on,” Tucker said of the experienced line.
For the first time in a couple years, Wagener-Salley is breaking in a new quarterback. While he won’t be called upon to replace all of Stroman’s production, sophomore Cameron Shiffner will be taking over the signal-caller role.
“Cameron’s a baseball player, so he’s got a pretty decent arm,” Tucker said of Shiffner, who also pitches for the War Eagle baseball team. “He’s a little better at escaping the pass rush that we thought he would be.”
Joining Holmes in the running effort is Al Bynem, and 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore Xavier Friday will look to fill Tyler’s role as defensive end and tight end.
Games to watch
While Wagener-Salley and rival Ridge Spring-Monetta are no longer in the same region, the teams will square off on Sept. 5 at the Trojans’ home field.
Tucker said that he expects the road game will give his young team an early chance to cut its teeth against a quality opponent, one that ended the War Eagles’ season a year ago.
“I think it’s going to be a good test,” he said. “It’ll be good experience heading into our region schedule.”
That region schedule includes Class A, Division II state champion Hunter-Kinard-Tyler, Region 4-A champion Williston-Elko and traditional power Blackville-Hilda, as well as Calhoun County, which returns to Class A after a stint in Class AA.
Tucker said, unlike last year, his team would not be thinking about where it stands in relation to those programs.
“Last year, at times I thought we might’ve looked too far ahead,” he said. “This year, we’ve really got to take it one week at a time.”
Despite a new batch of skill players, the War Eagles will run the same shotgun spread offense that they ran with the previous group.
The main difference, Tucker said, will be a more basic set of plays.
“We’re almost back to where we were three years ago, being young and trying to teach these guys how to play,” he said.
To make that system work, Shiffner will have to be able to complete passes to his receivers. In addition to Friday, he’ll have a combination of juniors Dacquan Austin, Kesean Hudson and Nijae Jerry along with sophomore Nick Posey as options on the outside.
Jerry was the only member of the group to catch a pass a year ago, his for a 9-yard gain.
Wagener-Salley will also stick with the 4-2 defensive scheme that it has relied on in recent years.
Up front, that effort will center around Jones, a 5-foot-9, 300-pound senior lineman who had 25 tackles with a sack and a blocked kick a year ago.
“Defensively, he’s not real tall, so we try to keep him low and stay behind his pads,” Tucker said.
The coach is hoping that will open up some gaps for a quartet of junior linebackers – Terrence Samuels, Quadrick Singleton, Bynem and Holmes. While none of them were huge factors in the War Eagle defense a year ago, all of them have been in Tucker’s system.
“They’ve been around and in the program the last few years, but they just haven’t had to play a lot,” he said.
Unlike most other areas, the War Eagles actually have an experienced player returning in the kicking game. Posey made nine of 11 extra-point attempts last season and even hit a 29-yard field goal.
“He can kick it, but we’re still trying to find a snapper and a holder,” Tucker said.
Friday is handling the punting duties right now, another role Stroman filled a year ago, and freshmen Daniel Frazier and Tre Davis will get the first crack at returning kicks.
While last year’s War Eagle team could set its sights on contending for a Region 4-A title, Tucker knows this year’s version is a different story.
In the defensive backfield alone, as many as three freshmen will be in the starting lineup for the season opener against Bethune-Bowman, and only three players with any starting experience will be in the mix.
Because of that, Tucker said his team will be “just trying to get better every week and compete each week.”
Still, he noted that the program’s recent success had made an impact on the untested players.
“I think it’s changed a lot of the attitude and the culture around the program,” he said, noting that past squads might focus on the players that were gone and get down on themselves before the season began. “These guys actually, as far as summer workouts and such, have been better than the last couple years.”
That, he hopes, will help his young team grow up.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.
• vs Latta 33-28 Win
• at Bethune-Bowman 52-6 Win
• vs. Pelion 30-27 Loss
• at Whitmire 60-6 Win
• vs. Blackville-Hilda 34-27 Win
• at Williston-Elko 62-40 Loss
• vs. North 42-6 Win
• at Fox Creek 38-6 Win
• vs. Hunter-Kinard-Tyler 28-25 Loss
• at Ridge Spring-Monetta 35-28 Win
• vs. Ridge Spring-Monetta 34-13 Loss*
* - Class A, Division II playoff game
All games at 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 22 BYE
Aug. 29 vs. Bethune-Bowman
Sept. 5 at Ridge Spring-Monetta
Sept. 12 vs. Fox Creek
Sept. 19 at Whitmire
Sept. 26 vs. Great Falls
Oct. 3 at North ^
Oct. 10 at Blackville-Hilda ^
Oct. 17 vs. Calhoun County ^
Oct. 24 vs. Williston-Elko ^
Oct. 31 at Hunter-Kinard-Tyler ^
^ - Region 4-A game
Aug. 4 North Augusta
Aug. 5 Strom Thurmond
Aug. 6 Fox Creek
Aug. 7 South Aiken
Aug. 8 Williston-Elko
Monday Silver Bluff
Wednesday Ridge Spring-Monetta
Thursday Midland Valley
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wagener-Salley's Jerrel Swedenburg (66) keeps his eye on the ball as head coach Ken Tucker conducts a drill.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wagener-Salley's Dacquan Austin looks in a catch at practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wagener-Salley's Daniel Frazier (21) runs around a block by Nick Posey at practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wagener-Salley head coach Ken Tucker passes along a play to quarterback Cameron Shiffner (2) at practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wagener-Salley's Xavier Friday jumps to catch a pass at practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wagener-Salley's Tre Davis (24) eludes the defense of Cameron Shiffner (2) at practice.×