October 10, 2013

Shenandoah defender is the face – and fuel – of program

More news about: Shenandoah
Team captain Byron Mitchell chose Shenandoah over his brother's alma mater, Bridgewater, because he wanted to define his own legacy.
Shenandoah athletics photo 

Over the past three-plus years, several people have learned the name Byron Mitchell. First, it was the students and faculty on the campus of Shenandoah. Then, it was the USA South Conference. After a conference change, the ODAC got to know Mr. Mitchell. Then, a new coaching staff came aboard and enjoyed their introduction to the Hornets’ captain. With his play on the field and leadership off of it, the man they call “B-Mitch” is making friends and fans all over the place.

“Byron is a really good football player and an even better kid,” said first-year head coach Scott Yoder. “You can coach a long time and only have a couple of kids like him.”

While the Hornets program has gone through multiple big changes over the past two years, Mitchell has been the one reliable constant. He was a driving force through the program’s transition from the USA South to the more competitive ODAC. Then, he helped the team through the coaching transition from the long-tenured Paul Barnes to Yoder.

“What they’ve gone through in the last 18 to 24 months, nobody plans to go through that,” said Yoder. “The younger kids really look up to Byron and the seniors. They embraced [the changes].”

Mitchell always had a desire to make an impact of his own. That’s why he chose to go to Shenandoah, rather than follow in his older brother’s footsteps and attend Bridgewater. Brandon Mitchell was a senior for the Eagles when Byron was a freshman at Shenandoah. The two programs are located near one another and played every year before becoming conference foes. The Eagles’ dominance over the Hornets prevented this from becoming a real rivalry. Shenandoah’s only win in the series came in 2008. So why did the little brother choose to play for the program that was beaten like a little brother on the field?

“I didn’t want to go to Bridgewater and be ‘Brandon’s little brother,’” said Mitchell. “I wanted to make a name for myself.”

It also helped that Byron’s identical twin brother, Bryce, had already committed to play basketball for the Hornets. The brothers are two-thirds of a set of triplets (the third goes to Virginia Tech; Byron never considered attending a bigger school). What Mitchell did not expect was all of the changes he would encounter once he got to campus.

“Changes happen, and you have no control over that,” he said. “We’re all going through these transitions together. We told all of the players to come to the captains if they have any questions.”

Even after Yoder arrived and helped set a tone for the program, the changes for Mitchell were not over. This was his fourth season starting at safety, but his playmaking abilities served the defense better in the box. In the second conversation between Yoder and Mitchell, the two talked about Mitchell’s position.

“I told him I’d play anywhere, wherever the team needed me, but I wanted safety to be my first choice,” said Mitchell. “I told Coach I would make a transition for the team.”

After a 34-6 loss to Christopher Newport sent Shenandoah into its bye week, the time was right to make a change. Mitchell and fellow senior defensive back Sean Blackman both moved to outside linebacker. The two captains were ready and willing to sacrifice for the good of the team.

“It was a rough two weeks and a difficult transition,” said Mitchell. “We knew we had to get better at it and fast.”

The duo combined for 20 tackles in the first game as starting linebackers. Mitchell had 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Oh, and Shenandoah defeated Bridgewater for just the second time in program history.

“To get this win, it felt so great,” said Mitchell. “I definitely think it’s the best win in Shenandoah history.”

All of a sudden, his older brother won’t return his text messages. The elder Mitchell, whose team defeated Byron’s by a touchdown in their only on-field meeting, didn’t think the Hornets would pull the upset in Byron’s final season. The little brother, whose team had lost to Bridgewater by a combined 15 points in Byron’s three previous chances, was determined to win his last game against the Eagles.

“My brother told me that he didn’t think we’d win,” said Mitchell. “It felt really good to shut him up.”

In the 2010 game, when both brothers suited up, their mother went back and forth in the stands wearing a customized half-Bridgewater, half-Shenandoah shirt. She and Byron both knew that the Eagles fans and players would be talking much smack to Byron before and during the game.

“My mom said to go out there and show them who the real ‘B-Mitch’ is,” said Byron.

With his twin brother and their classmates in the stands jumping up and down, Byron and his teammates fed off of the crowd’s energy. Shentel Stadium was loud and lively for the night game against the ODAC favorite.

“We’ve gotten tremendous support, even though we don’t have the history of wins and losses to back it up,” said Yoder. “That was a big step, and I hope it pays dividends. That win was huge for us on so many levels.”

Mitchell is optimistic that the win was the turning point that the seniors had been seeking for the past two years. The celebration was a relief, as the team has already eclipsed its win total from a season ago.

“Campus is really starting to grab hold of what we’re trying to do,” said Mitchell. “Our fans were so into it during the Bridgewater game.”

Mitchell is the face of the program, writing a weekly blog on the athletic program’s website and supporting the school’s other athletic programs. He has enjoyed the feedback he gets each week from readers of his blog. The sports media major is a role model not just to his younger teammates, but to all Shenandoah students.

“He does a great job of being a playmaker on the field and representing the football program on campus,” said Yoder. “Everybody on campus knows him. If we had 97 kids vote for captain, he gets all 97 votes.”

After a conference change, a coaching change, and a position change, a player might be worn down. Mitchell is just the opposite. There is no reason why Shenandoah can’t compete in a wide-open ODAC.

“As a leader on the team, I really just want to be an example for the freshmen and show them that this isn’t just a rebuilding year,” said Mitchell. “We have the talent to win now.”

Mitchell and the captains held several players-only meetings in the spring. They quickly developed a relationship with Yoder. The transition was aided by Yoder’s retention of assistant coaches Brock McCullough and Kalvin Oliver.

“As a senior, I had to get comfortable and fast, so I could be a role model for the freshmen,” said Mitchell. “Having coaches Oliver and McCullough really helped our upperclassmen.”

The ODAC transition was a struggle, as Shenandoah went winless in conference play last year. The Hornets are already off to a better start this year. The coaching transition was easier, aided by the leadership of captains Mitchell, Blackman, senior Preston Funk and junior David Bell. The position change was the easiest yet, as Mitchell and Blackman quickly committed to their new roles. Their success played a huge role in their biggest win as Hornets.

“After the first forced fumble, we told each other, ‘OLB for life,’” said Mitchell. “For the seniors and coaches who never beat Bridgewater, to get this win felt so great.”

The Hornets have already put the struggles of 2012 behind them, but know that they need to win two games in a row to be considered a serious contender. They entered 2013 with a chip on their shoulder and the win over Bridgewater has only made them hungrier to prove that they belong in the conference.

“We try not to focus too much on last year, but we realize what the kids experienced,” said Yoder. “We know we have something to prove as a team and as individuals.”

Leading the conference in forced fumbles with three, and tied for the lead with 38 tackles, Mitchell has already accomplished his goal of making a name for himself. He wants to be the next B-Mitch to win an ODAC title. He has led the Hornets through two of the most challenging transitions a program can make. His teammates and coaches are eager to send him out on a deserved high note.

“He is a vocal leader and a lead by example guy,” said Yoder. “I only wish I had one more year with him, but we’re going to make the most of the time we’ve got.”

Notables

What Did I Miss? Do you know about any upcoming milestones, big games or new names in the Mid-Atlantic? Please share them with me. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com.

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