ROMNEY, W.Va. — Hampshire football hopes 2020 is a year of change for the rebuilding program in head coach Aaron Rule’s second season at the helm.
The Trojans already unveiled their brand new turf surface at Rannells Field before taking on Frankfort in their season-opener, but that’s not the only way the team hopes this campaign is different.
Rule and his boys struggled through a 0-10 season last year that was distinguished by the injury bug and a roster lacking significant experience. But Hampshire graduated just five seniors and brings back a more battle-tested roster led by senior Trevor Sardo, a two-time Times-News All-Area first-teamer.
“We want to get some wins on the scoreboard,” Rule said. “Last year was really trying with injuries. This year we want to stay healthy and compete week in and week out. We want to be better than what we were last year.”
The Trojans are looking for a turnaround similar to their 2012 campaign, when they rebounded from a 1-9 season to go 6-4 — which began a three-year stretch where the Class AAA squad compiled a record of 17-13.
Rule is no stranger to rebuilding either. As the defensive coordinator of the Poca Dots, he helped turn the Class AA team’s winless 2017 squad into a 9-2 playoff team in just three years.
For this edition of the Trojans to become more competitive, Rule says they’ll need to up their physicality.
“We were so young last year, so most of our roster that’s back has seen a tremendous amount of time on the field,” he said. “We’re confident that as those guys get comfortable with the offense and defense, we’ll be able to have success.
“The biggest thing is upping our assertiveness and being physical. We need to let the other team know we mean business.”
Hampshire is in the second year of its up-tempo spread, air-raid offense under coach Koty Hix.
Last season, the Trojans did have some success moving the football against Spring Mills (21 points), Petersburg (14) and Frankfort (20). But they’ll need to improve their consistency to have success in 2020; half their games were shutouts last year.
“We’re implementing more into our offense this year,” Rule said. “I expect the guys to run a faster tempo. The guys did a good job over the summer, and now we want the guys to become more physical and competitive.”
To open the season, Hampshire isn’t set on just one option at quarterback yet. Alex Hott and Tra Bryson are neck-and-neck in a QB battle, and both have shown Rule enough to earn the starting job.
In the season-opening loss to Frankfort, Hott, a junior, got the call and completed 6 of 10 passes for 70 yards and an interception. Rule turned to Bryson in the second half, and the senior passed for 78 yards, converting on 6 of 15 throws with an interception of his own.
Going forward, Rule still plans on going with the hot hand, whether that’s Hott, Bryson or somebody else.
“Whoever does a better job week in and week out is going to be a starter,” he said. “Alex Hott and Tra Bryson have done the better job of the group. Easton Shanholtz (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) is still a little green. I talked to him the other day about being more assertive. Right now, Hott demands a lot from our offense.”
On the receiving end, there return several proven options at wideout. Sardo, a 2018 first-team receiver — he made the first team as a defensive back last year — is back on the outside. He’ll be joined by Christian Hicks, who at 6-3 is an easy target on the outside.
“Sardo and Hicks have stood out so far,” Rule said. “At over 6-foot tall, really long, Hicks is a huge target. They both can run great routes, they know how to find the opening in the secondary. We want to stretch the field with them this year.”
The main ball carriers this campaign will be Nevin Ludwick and Alex Pritts.
Pritts got the bulk of the chances in the season-opener against the Falcons, 6 for 26 yards. Eli Spencer, Jacob Staub and Stephen Leonard are also in the mix.
“We try when one guy is doing better than another guy to go with that guy,” Rule said. “Alex Pritts does a good job keeping his shoulders down running downhill. Ludwick is another really good downhill runner. Leonard and Spencer dropped weight over the summer. Staub has put on some much-needed weight over the offseason.”
The entire offensive line is back from a year ago. Seniors Sam Moreland and Alex Shumaker, juniors Michael Gilman and Zach Hill, and sophomore Grant Hicks are the five starters for the second season in a row.
“All five know what (coach Hicks) expects,” Rule said. “They’ve definitely shown they’ve grown and matured over the year. Moreland and Hill did well in the scrimmage we had against Preston.”
Rule, also the defensive coordinator, is bringing back his 4-2-5 defense, and he hopes another year without a scheme change will help his guys get more comfortable.
Sam Moreland and his brother Jonathan Moreland are this year’s defensive ends. Shumaker and Chaney are the two interior linemen.
“Moreland and his brother are doing more this year, squeezing a lot more,” Rule said.
Pritts and Leonard are at inside linebacker. Hicks and Ludwick are outside.
“Pritts and Luckwick have done a tremendous job,” Rule said. “It’s the second year of this defense, and they’re doing what I’ve been preaching. Hicks moved from the defensive line to linebacker, and he’s caught on quick. He’s doing a good job and is helping our defense be better overall.”
Hott and Asher Landis are locked into the two spots at cornerback. Sophomore Gavin Hott will get some time too.
Sardo is patrolling the middle of the field at free safety, which will be occupied by Alex Hott at times as well depending on the matchup.
The defense struggled against Frankfort, allowing more than 40 points on 387 yards on the ground and touchdowns on 7 of their 9 drives.
On one of those stops, however, Moreland made a heads-up play, stripping Falcon running back Parker VanMeter on Hampshire’s first defensive series of the half. Until the Trojans figure it out on offense, they’ll need opportunistic plays like that if they’re going to break their losing streak.
They’ll try to get their first win of the season tonight at Spring Mills beginning at 7 p.m.
Alex Rychwalski is a sportswriter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.