Will Byrne talks about the football intelligence of junior defensive back Dylan Abernethy, and how he plays like a coach’s son.
“His dad (Robbie) is our defensive coordinator, and Dylan knows and loves the game,” Byrne says. “That’s what you get in a coach’s son.”
That might sound familiar to Maiden High football fans. Once upon a time, Fred Byrne was defensive coordinator at Maiden, and his son Will was a ball boy on Friday nights. Later, Will Byrne would set school records as a receiver and played in the Shrine Bowl.
It’s the circle of life in Maiden, self-proclaimed as the Biggest Little Football Town in the World. Seasons come, seasons go, but Blue Devils football is the biggest show in town.
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“It’s unbelievable some Friday nights, being in here with five or six thousand people watching,” Byrne says while walking across the playing field at Thomas E. Brown Stadium, named for the school’s legendary football coach. “It’s quite an experience, the way this community loves its football.”
Indeed, most home games draw more fans than the town’s population of about 3,500. They come to see victories and rarely go home unhappy.
Last fall, their beloved Blue Devils never lost in the regular season, finishing 11-0 as South Fork 2A champions. Then came the opening round of the playoffs — and a 16-0 loss to a Newton Fred T. Foard team that Maiden had beaten handily in the regular-season opener.
“That was a tough one to take,” says the school’s booster club president, Charles Abernethy – Robbie’s uncle. Charles Abernethy has been a Maiden High booster since 1962. “I’ve seen a lot of good teams in those years – boys and girls, all sports,” he says. “The trophy case is crowded.”
More hardware might be headed to that case, courtesy of the football team.
Byrne has 13 starters returning, including wide receiver-defensive back-kick returner Caleb McDaniel, who accounted for nearly 900 yards of offense in 2017; and linebacker Chris Morgan, who had 118 tackles. “He would’ve had 170 if he played all the downs, but we had him in a rotation,” Byrne says.
One question mark is the quarterback. Keygan McDaniel, who accounted for about 2,000 yards of offense last fall, is gone. His replacement is junior Bain Sipe, who Byrne says “nearly won the starting quarterback job last year.
“He’s a tough kid, with a strong arm. He knows the system.”
He’ll have receiving targets in McDaniel and Abernethy, both all-conference players in 2017, and Montrell Stinson. Byrne says assistant coaches Hugh McCall, Stephen Hensley and Greg Pound are designing what he calls “a very creative running game.”
The defense looks solid, anchored by Morgan, McDaniel and Abernethy. Byrne says defensive lineman Gannon Bishop had two sacks and six tackles for losses before a knee injury sidelined him in the fifth game last year. Bishop is back and healthy, his coach says.
Byrne says the Blue Devils tried to outscore opponents in recent seasons but held foes to 16 points a game last year. “We want to be good defensively every year,” he says.
Maiden’s coach says he isn’t worried about his team being ready for the opener — against a Foard team loaded with returnees.
“This is Maiden,” Byrne says. “Little kids grow up around here wanting to be football players. They love football.”
2017: 11-1 (lost 16-0 to Newton Fred T. Foard in 2AA playoffs first round)
Conference: South Fork 2A.
Top players: WR-DB-KR Caleb McDaniel (sr., 5-9, 165); LB Chris Morgan (jr., 6-0, 230); QB Bain Sipe (jr., 5-9, 175) WR-DB Dylan Abernethy (jr, 60, 165); WR-SS Montrell Stinson (sr., 6-3, 200); LB Kylen Bradshaw (jr, 5-11, 230).
Outlook: The Blue Devils will have a battle with East Lincoln and West Lincoln in the conference, but once they get to the playoffs, the memory of last year’s first-round loss should be motivation. If Sipe can deliver as expected, Maiden will have a strong passing game to go with a rugged defense.