By Parker Stone, Panhandle News Network Sports
Martinsburg, W.Va- Early success was the order for Spring Mills when the newest high school in the Eastern Panhandle broke ground in 2013. Qualifying for the Class AAA playoffs for the first time in 2015 and running a streak that would go six years in a row.
Now as the 2010s turned to the 2020s, the adage for the Spring Mills Cardinals the past two seasons has been “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” A second consecutive 4-6 campaign for the Cardinals in 2022 was in part due to bad bounces of luck, with quarterback Max Anderson out injured against Jefferson and the nail-biter of a finish against Hedgesville going the way of the Eagles that ultimately cost them a playoff berth.
Many have pointed to this season as being the one where the young core the Cardinals have built around Anderson finally has that breakout and play playoff football for the first time in the 2020s decade. The Cardinals feature a majority of their team back for 2023.
Max Anderson, the only returning full-time starter at quarterback in the EPAC, has been highlighted as one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the state. The next step is developing his passing, which he thinks he has improved vastly upon entering his third year as the Cardinals starter.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at being comfortable in the pocket. That comes down to working with my receivers in seven-on-sevens this summer. We’re hungry and we are ready to just get out there,” said Anderson.
“Max is a calm guy and keeps his composure, I have a lot of confidence in him,” said Cardinals interim head coach Marcus Law. “We look at it as a unit. The pressure is not only on Max but on everyone as a unit.”
Senior Alex Eaton returns to lead the backfield along with junior Kamren Taylor-Black. As in 2022, I also expect Anderson to be focal in the rushing attack too.
The receivers are filled with youth across the board and are led by junior Keyon Mills, who burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2021 but had a quieter sophomore campaign. Marcus Law thinks Mills is primed to have a big year in 2023.
“Keyon has been tremendous this offseason,” said Law. “He’s become one of our captains and has worked with the younger guys and has been coaching them up as well. On the field we want to move him around a bit, primarily he will be in the slot.”
The Cardinals will also feature Max Anderson’s younger brother, 6’6 sophomore tight end Xavier in the passing game.
The offensive line features the return of both senior Anthony Williams at tackle and junior Brayden Kirk at center. “I think we’ve improved a lot from last year. We’ve gotten more patient as a group,” said Williams. “Most of our line is more athletic than others so we can use Max’s mobility.”
Defensively the Cardinals’ key losses are Gavin Jones at defensive end who is now playing at VMI and the versatile Sam Stotler at linebacker. An overall underrated defense, the Cardinals ranked fourth in the EPAC with 28 points per game allowed. Even with these losses, Cardinals defensive coordinator Buddy Hesen is confident his defense will remain strong in 2023.
“Last year we didn’t have Gavin as much as we wanted to due to injury which allowed younger guys to step up like Anthony Williams and Prophet Guillaume,” said Hesen.
The senior Williams will start at nose guard for the Cardinals with the junior Guillaume replacing Jones at defensive end. Hesen also mentioned his confidence in his second team and highlighted sophomore Xavier Anderson adding strength to his game and making large strides in the offseason.
Junior Nico Loeber looks to be the replacement for Stotler at linebacker for the Cardinals and is going to be led by a young group. “Sam Stotler was huge last year for us. We had a lot of younger kids who had to step up and play that role with him,” said Loeber. “We’ve gotten better in the trenches as well as in the passing area as a whole.”
The secondary for the Cardinals will feature Mills at corner as well as the return of senior defensive back Zach Bender.
If the Cardinals are to get over that proverbial hump and get back into the playoffs in 2023, they must find ways to win in the EPAC. In their ten-year history as a school the Cardinals are 49-54 overall, but where they struggle is inside the conference with a record of 21-34.
The Cardinals will start their season with EPAC test in the inaugural Panhandle High School Football Game of the Week on the Panhandle News Network as they take on the Jefferson Cougars this Friday night at 7.