WILLIAMSBURG – Strip. Pick. Protect.
It sounds simple, but the Williamsburg Raiders transformed it into a formula for success.
The Class 3A sixth-ranked Raiders became one of first prep football programs to clinch a district title before their non-district game Friday against Vinton-Shellsburg at Vinton. The game will be televised on KCRG 9.2, beginning at 7 p.m.
Williamsburg (6-1, 5-0 3A District 7) has been powered by an impressive plus-21 turnover margin. The Raiders defense has forced and recovered 14 fumbles and intercepted 10 passes. The offense has only lost three fumbles with two in the Week 7 33-27 win over Keokuk to secure Williamsburg’s third district crown since moving to 3A in 2004. Players added winning turnover battle to preseason goals, and coaches preached it from day one.
“Last year, we had way too many turnovers, so this year we’re trying to concentrate on us getting the ball back,” said Williamsburg defensive back Aaron Schultz, who leads the team with six interceptions. “Either stripping it, reading the eyes of the quarterback, getting deep, doing your assignment and making a play when you get the opportunity.”
The takeaway advantage has been a team effort. A whopping 14 Raiders have an interception or fumble recovery. No special drills have been introduced into practice, but there is more emphasis on causing turnovers.
“We work on getting to the ball,” Schultz said. “Once you get to the ball, hopefully, good things happen. Get to the ball and make a play when you get there.”
Schultz has been at the forefront. He is second in interceptions in 3A, trailing Creston’s Luke Neitzel by one. He is fourth in all classes. Schultz praised the rest of the defense for contributing to his own production.
“Just having help from teammates to make pressure or a bad pass,” Schultz said. “Then, see the ball and get there, hopefully, see it before the receiver and make a good break on it.”
Williamsburg Coach Curt Ritchie said some fans have been pleasantly surprised by the junior’s performance. Ritchie and the Raiders identified the potential during the summer.
“He works at it,” said Ritchie, noting Schultz hasn’t missed a workout in three years. “He makes plays. He has an instinct for the ball, offensively and defensively.”
Senior Corbin Blythe is one of the few Raiders without a turnover, but the two-way lineman has helped force them. Blythe leads the Raiders in tackles with 57, including 11 solo tackles for loss and two assists. He has seven sacks, combining strength and speed to cause pressure.
“The last two weeks in close games at the end against Washington (Iowa) and Keokuk, he took over and picked it up a notch,” Ritchie said. “That’s been really good.”
The Raiders don’t have any competition amongst one another for the most turnovers. They rally around each other, sharing in the celebration for every sack and turnover by the team. They benefit from strong unity and camaraderie.
“We’re a really tight group,” said Raiders senior Bryan MacDonald, who has a fumble recovery. “We’ve been together for a really long time. It’s natural for all of us to come together.”
Opponents have taken notice, and future foes should be mindful of Williamsburg’s ball-raiding ways. The Raiders hopes it influences a team’s approach.
“It also gives us a reputation,” Williamsburg’s David Francis said. “Make sure you’re good with the ball or we’re going to take it away from you.”
The achievement is not only a product of the defense. Offensively, the Raiders have avoided turnovers that plagued them in 2011. Williamsburg turned the ball over 27 times last year, including four in a game against Benton Community. That is more in one game than the first seven this season.
Jacob Donohoe and Chance Wetjen have shared time playing quarterback this season. They have combined for 146 pass attempts, the team has thrown 151 total, and 10 touchdowns without an interception.
“They have always been quarterbacks and (make good) decisions passing,” Ritchie said. “We’ve done a lot of fly-motion stuff. They’ve done a great job of taking care of the ball during that stuff. … Both of them have done a great job hanging on to the ball.”
The offense has amassed more than 3,100 yards of total offense, and averages more than 36 points a game. The raiders are more comfortable on that side of the ball, counting on the defense getting them another chance if they struggle for a series.
“Our offense is more calm,” said Williamsburg’s Cody Marine, who has an interception and is third on the team with 11 receptions. “If we do have to punt it, we’re likely to get a turnover or a 3-and-out. That’s been really key.”
It was key to spark the celebration last weekend when it became clear they had the title wrapped up, owning a one-game lead on Washington and the head-to-head tiebreaker with one district game remaining. It was the first of many goals the Raiders want to reach this season, including a state title.
“It was pretty crazy,” Francis said. “We all went to the locker room and went nuts. It was a greatest feeling.”
The celebration didn’t last too long. The Raiders went right back to work, trying to improve for the game against Vinton-Shellsburg (3-4). Complacency should not be a problem the final two weeks of the regular season.
“Instead of getting a step better, we’re going to get two steps better, three steps better,” Francis said. “We’re not going to coast. We’re going to be as good as we can possibly be and strive for perfection like any other week.”