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Change of formation: Chesterfield high school teams look to new leaders, renewed rivalries, college signings

Midlothian High School’s head football coach, Matt Hutchings, says this season’s Trojans team has the benefit of well-seasoned returning starters. Last year, Midlothian made it to the playoffs for the first time in school history but lost in the second round to Hermitage High School. ASH DANIEL

A new school year means new possibilities. That’s especially true for the 10 high school football teams in Chesterfield County, as each school began play over the past weekend. Each team has a reason for optimism, but perhaps none more so than the Midlothian Trojans, who are looking to improve upon last year’s playoff appearance.

Last year’s Trojans broke into the playoffs for the first time in school history, capitalizing with a 42-13 win over Godwin before being dispatched by Hermitage 24-14 in the next round. This year, the team is returning the majority of its starters, including quarterback Cooper Meads.

“Everyone in our secondary and every linebacker returned. Every receiver but one returned. We’ve got a returning All-Metro running back, Ashby Berry, and we’re returning two top kickers,” says Coach Matt Hutchings. “We’ve also got our quarterback, [senior] Cooper Meads, who’s started for us since he was a sophomore. He’s a pretty special kid, and he hasn’t had a losing season yet.”

One of those returning players, senior linebacker Gabe Semidey, has an outstanding offer to play Division III ball in 2023 at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania. For now, Semidey is focused on elevating the players around him and hoping for a deep playoff run.

“I think we can go further into the playoffs this season,” Semidey says. “Last year, we came up short, but this year, we’ve got so many returning starters, and we’re all seniors. “Last year, I wasn’t much of a leader in the locker room – I was just doing my job and getting things done. But this year, even though we’ve got seniors at almost every position, we still need someone to step up and help out the younger guys. So that’s been something for me and a few other players to take on.”

Even though his sights are set on the playoffs, Semidey says the team can’t get farsighted. “We aren’t too focused on going undefeated or anything,” he says. “We want to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. If we do that, the wins will come.”

Meads, entering his last high school season at quarterback, says working with a trainer in the offseason has elevated his game. “My sophomore year, I honestly wasn’t as prepared as I should have been,” he says. “But since then, I’ve worked with a quarterback coach on mechanics, pre-snap reads and post-snap reads. I really started to notice a difference last year. It really slowed down the game for me.”

Meads is also excited about the number of returning players. “We’ve got over 20 seniors, and a lot of us have been playing together since we were 7 years old in the Chesterfield Quarterback League,” he says. “That brotherhood with my teammates is what keeps me coming back. I love being with them and pushing each other.”

Like the Trojans, the Manchester High School Lancers are hoping to repeat and improve upon a playoff appearance from last season. They went 6-2 in the regular season and crushed Ocean Lakes 59-7 in the first round before losing a tight 14-12 game to Western Branch in the second round. Unlike Midlothian, Manchester is dealing with the departure of several key players, but Coach Tom Hall is unperturbed, as his team will be replenished by young talent and transfers.

The Midlothian High School Trojans were 5-0 and the Manchester Lancers were 4-1 when the teams met last October in their 2021 conference game. Midlothian came from behind in the second half to win 42-35. Both teams are looking to renew last year’s strong performances. ASH DANIEL

“We’re very excited about the group we have coming up from junior varsity,” says Hall. “At quarterback, Landen Abernethy [a freshman] will be battling with Benedictine transfer Jason Wright [a sophomore] for the job. At running back, [sophomore] – another Benedictine transfer – will be battling with Devin Bryant [a junior].” He says that two juniors new to the team, Deon Carter and Jayden Plantin, “will be solid replacements.”

To lead the young team back to the playoffs, upperclassmen like junior Makai Byerson have stepped into leadership roles. “I try to lead by example,” says Byerson. “I can also tell my younger teammates how the process is going to go, and how the speed of the game is going to pick up.”

Byerson is a dual-sport star – he also plays basketball – and what Hall calls the prototype for a defensive lineman. “The mental aspect of football is challenging,” he says. “Keeping your mind in the game and knowing what to do at all times is hard for everybody. But I tell the younger players that once you start to learn more about the game, everything gets a bit slower and easier.”

As for his team’s chances, Byerson has one goal in mind. “We’ve got a team that can win a state championship,” he says. “This is one of the best teams I’ve played on.”

Thomas Dale High School is another team looking for revenge. After two consecutive appearances in the regional final game, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by county rival James River High School.

Coach Kevin Tucker hopes the loss was a wakeup call for his players, 16 of whom are returning starters. “We’re not always guaranteed to make the regional championship,” he says. “I think the loss made our kids hungrier and made them get more in tune with what we need to be doing in the offseason.”

Four of those returning starters make up a formidable linebacker corps, including seniors Maddax Lee, Brandan Cammarasana, Stephon Hicks and CJ Milazzo. “Those are four of the best players we’ve ever had at linebacker,” says Tucker. “All are three-year varsity players. Maddax had over 150 tackles last year, and the other three had 70 tackles apiece.

“With that type of experience at linebacker, we’re relying on our seniors to lead the way. We’ve also got some leaders who are juniors, including our quarterback, Ethan Minter.”

Minter is a three-year starter who led his team to an undefeated season as a freshman. Now, as he enters his junior year, he has Division I offers to play for Marshall, Old Dominion and Connecticut already on the table.

Tucker says that, although the team has its sights set on the state championship, the first goal is to win the Central District. “Those teams are a force to be reckoned with,” he says. “Dinwiddie is well-coached. Hopewell has a great quarterback. Matoaca and Petersburg are athletic. And Prince George has some big country boys, and they’re going to line them up right and knock you in the mouth. Then we’ve got our big matchup against [L.C. Bird High School]one of the biggest rivalries in the state.

“With all of these games, you’ve got to throw the records out the window when you take the field. The game is played on Friday night, not on paper.”

The James River Rapids are looking for redemption after an 8-1 season ended with a 50-0 loss in the second round to Oscar Smith, as are the Matoaca Warriors, who went 9-1 before losing 28-25 in the first round to Patrick Henry. The familiar, competitive atmosphere is fueled by the fact that many players at every school came through the CQL.

“I love the competitiveness,” says Byerson. “We’re going at it, getting better, having fun and creating a bond. My teammates are my forever brothers.”

“Football requires a lot of toughness,” says Meads. “There’s a lot of mental preparation, and translating that to the game can be tough. It’s definitely not for everyone – it’s not an easy sport.” ¦

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