The Colonial Forge Eagles took on the Riverbend Bears in the first round of the 6A-South football playoffs at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Riverbend defeated Colonial Forge 16-14.

The most convenient scapegoat for the uncharacteristically early end to Colonial Forge’s 2015 football season was Ethan Garwood.

The sophomore quarterback’s five interceptions certainly didn’t help the top-seeded Eagles’ cause in their 16-14 loss to Riverbend in the first round of the 6A-South, Conference 3-4 playoffs.

But anyone associated with Colonial Forge’s proud program wasn’t about to point the finger at one player—especially not the men assigned to protect him. Garwood’s offensive linemen felt they were as much (if not more) to blame.

“That was really disappointing,”senior Zeke Hand said. “We felt like we let [Garwood] down.”

Riverbend pressured Garwood on nearly every throw that night, with Division I prospect Ty’Juan Garbutt doing most of the damage. When head coach Bill Brown got around to reviewing the tape of the game, he realized his quarterback didn’t stand much of a chance.

“It devastated him after the game,” Brown said last week, “but we hadn’t had that kind of pressure all year. He had people in his face all night. We didn’t protect him very well. He was making bad decisions because he had to make ‘em fast.”

The sting of that rare first-round loss stuck with the Eagles all off-season--and the taste was sourest in the mouths of their underclass blockers, who got to work almost immediately preparing for the 2016 season, which opens at home Friday at 8 p.m. against Brooke Point.

“It made us more determined,” Hand said.

Added senior guard Brent Campbell: “We want to be more physical up front. You’ve just got to want to beat the guy in front of you.”

In his hall of fame career, Brown has become accustomed to coaching well past Thanksgiving each year. In 2015, he had the holiday off. But many of his returning players insisted that he open the weight room in November, and it was his linemen who led the charge, Brown is gratified by the fact that they’ve become leaders of a team that’s amon the deepest and most versatile he’s ever coached.

Another point in the linemen’s favor was the arrival of former Stafford coach Chad Lewis as offensive line coach. Lewis helped develop tackle Josh Ball, who signed with Florida State in February, and has pushed Colonial Forge’s linemen to reach a new level of strength and physicality.

Said Hand: “We didn’t work half as hard [last year] as we have this year.”

Because he didn’t have an offensive line coach last year, Brown worked with that group as well as overseeing the entire team. Now, he says, when he sidles over to watch blocking drills, “they look at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Chad has done a great job with them. We’re fortunate to have him.”

Very few teams at any level go far without strength up front. Colonial Forge has sent more than its share of individuals to Division I programs in the past decade (including Tim Scott, Blake and Eric Frohnapfel, Trey Reed, Daniel and David Ezeagwu).

This edition may not have that kind of individual star power, but there are enough playmakers to make sure last season’s first-round exit was only a blip and not a trend—if they get time to shine.

The linemen plan to make it so. Hand and Campbell are returning starters, and tackles Shane Strand (who stands 6-foot-5) and DeSean Davis form a solid foundation, with Andy Lowe and Mikey Jenkins competing for time at center.

“We’re capable of winning a state championship,” Strand said. “But it starts with us.”

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Steve DeShazo

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