Plenty on the line
STEPHENS CITY — A year ago at this time, the Handley football team was struggling mightily on offense.
Handley gained just 136 yards in a 21-0 loss to Sherando, which dropped its scoring and yardage averages through seven games to 13.3 points and 229.4 yards per game.
But over the last three weeks of the season, Handley transformed from the run-oriented attack it had been for years and began filling up the sky with footballs on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons with regularity. Last year’s Skyline game kicked off an eight-game stretch in which Handley averaged 381.4 yards and 37.8 points per game thanks largely to their aerial attack.
A big reason for that aerial prowess over that stretch was because Handley quarterback Will Dearing had the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Justin Washington to throw the ball to. Over those eight games, Washington caught 54 passes for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Judges had to play without the injured Washington in their last game though, and it looks like they’ll have to continue to do that.
But naturally, a Judges team that’s put up some pretty big numbers this year has no desire to let that offensive success fall to earth.
Because of Saturday night’s opponent, the Judges (4-2, 0-0 Northwestern District, ranked eighth in the 4A North Region) will be even more motivated to show what they can do offensively.
Sherando (6-1, 1-0, first in 4A North) has beaten the Judges the last two years, including 21-0 last year at the Handley Bowl. The Judges lead the all-time series 11-8.
And the winner of Saturday’s game that kicks off at 7 p.m. at Sherando’s Arrowhead Stadium — moved back a day because the Warriors had their last game pushed back to Monday — will put themselves in strong position to win the district as well as the Barr-Lindon Crimson Apple, which is awarded each year by The Winchester Star to the team that fares the best between the Winchester-Frederick County schools.
Sherando is 1-0 in this competition as a result of beating James Wood 41-6 Monday. This will be the Judges first Barr-Lindon Crimson Apple game, and their first game of any kind in two weeks.
That last game didn’t go so well for Handley. The Judges gave up a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game, and Kettle Run made that score stand up in a 17-3 victory.
Handley’s low point total was a stunning reversal, and it finished with just 194 yards of total offense. But considering the quality of Kettle Run’s defense — Sherando only gained 221 yards in a 17-7 win over Kettle Run this year — Handley coach Tony Rayburn thought the Judges did have some good moments.
“If you go back and look at the film, we moved the ball pretty well at times,” he said. “It’s just we don’t have as many playmakers at times, so we have to be able to put more plays in a row together without negative plays. We had bad snaps, and missed assignments here and there.”
As far as their biggest playmaker Washington, Rayburn would only say “he’s out” when asked about Washington’s status, and didn’t elaborate when asked if that meant for the game or for the season.
But with junior quarterback Will Dearing (87 for 157 for 1,512 yards, 16 touchdowns, four interceptions), junior wide receiver Dontae Mauck (31 catches for 577 yards and five touchdowns), junior running back D.J. Frisby (79 carries for 426 yards and two touchdowns) and a veteran offensive line, the Judges still possess plenty to give most defenses fits.
And the Judges also have wide receivers Jarett Cestaro, Jason Morgan and Brian Thomas and tight end Ben Nelson (a combined 20 catches, 279 yards and two touchdowns). Dearing said it helped to have a bye week so that their receivers could get more work in.
“I think it just gave the people behind [Washington] time to prepare and figure out what they need to do, and what their new role is,” Dearing said. “People just knew they needed to step up and needed to fill in.”
Senior two-way lineman Jordan Dowrey (67 tackles, two sacks) said Washington’s injury “hurts,” but there’s a great deal of trust in the rest of Handley’s players.
Dowrey said no matter who’s on the field, Handley can’t afford to fall behind by so much, so quickly. Kettle Run led 17-0 after one quarter against the Judges, and good defenses like the Cougars — and Sherando’s (220.1 yards, 14.3 points allowed) — are even more dangerous when they can make an offense one-dimensional.
“The first kickoff, and the first series on defense [against Kettle Run], we weren’t playing very well,” Dowrey said. “After that we settled in, and after the first quarter it was a [3-0] game. We just can’t start putting ourselves in a hole, because against good teams it’s hard to get out of that.”
Sherando comes into Saturday’s game on the heels of a more successful effort than the Judges, but with four days of rest in between games they’ve had to grit it out a little this week.
Sherando senior linebacker/running back George Aston — who leads the area with 83 tackles and 13 touchdowns — said he was still sore from Monday after Wednesday’s practice, even though he was one of the Warrior players who got to sit the second half after the Warriors built up a 35-0 halftime lead.
Sherando coach Bill Hall said the main thing this week was being mindful of the tempo that the Warriors were practicing at to make sure they got enough rest.
The Judges’ offense will keep Sherando active Saturday.
“We just have to make sure we do a good job being fundamental,” Hall said. “They do a good job spreading the field out, both vertically and horizontally. You have to do a good job making sure that you’re sound, and they have good athletes in space so we have to make sure we do a good job pursuing the ball. Their goal is to create space, our goal is to constrict space.”
Though the Warriors’ defense has been strong all year, Sherando feels like its offense is coming on too. Sherando quarterback Reid Entsminger passed for 340 yards and a school-record five touchdown passes two weeks ago against Liberty, and the Warriors rushed for 197 yards in the first half against the Colonels.
Sherando — which shares three common opponents with Handley — is only averaging 10 fewer yards per game (365 to 355) than the Judges.
“I think we’ve been using our entire playbook here recently,” Hall said. “We just emphasized one part of it Monday night, and I think it’s good whenever you commit and say, ‘We’re going to live in this and go with this type of game plan based on the situation.’ With it being a sloppy field and being in the situation we were in, it made sense to be in a lot of 22 personnel [two running backs, two tight ends] and be physical and grind it out. To be able to line up and do that consistently for an entire half was a good thing.”
For the Judges, the good news for them is they’re getting healthier on defense. Safety Andrew Lins returned three weeks ago against Washington (W.Va.) — a much-needed boost to a secondary that had received strong play from Washington — and linebacker Will Martin is expected to play tomorrow after missing two games with an ankle injury.
“[Sherando] has made some really big plays lately,” Rayburn said. “Looking at the Liberty film, I don’t know how many long touchdown passes they had, but they can do a lot of things. You have to try and take the big plays away.”
Whichever teams makes more of those big plays will take a big win away in this fierce rivalry. The two years prior to last year saw both games go to overtime, and three other games in the last nine years have been decided by three points or less.
“It’s always exciting to start off districts with Sherando,” Dearing said. “It’s always going to be an exciting crowd. The atmosphere is just going to be amazing.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1