The formula is pretty simple for the James Wood and Handley football teams as they clash Saturday afternoon at James R. Wilkins Jr. Stadium: Win and you’re in the Region 4C playoffs.
“Our record means nothing now,” Handley coach Dan Jones said. “We’re both 0-0 and whoever wins moves on.”
The Judges (7-2, 4-2) and Colonels (6-3, 3-3) know that their seasons are on the line. Liberty and Sherando have already clinched two of the Class 4 Northwestern District’s four playoff spots. Millbrook needs a win tonight against Culpeper County, winless in district play, to grab the third spot.
That likely leaves only one spot left as the longtime rivals battle to end playoff droughts. The Judges have not made the postseason since 2013 and the Colonels’ last trip was in 2014.
Everyone knows what is on the line.
“Walking through school today, everybody is saying something about it,” James Wood coach Ryan Morgan said. “Obviously the athletes and the kids know, the lunch ladies and other teachers know and everything. People are paying attention.”
“We’ve talked about winning this game for a lot of reasons, but they know it’s a playoff atmosphere,” Jones said of his players. “It’s going to be a big crowd and James Wood is going to be ready to play. We are going to have to play our best.”
The two schools have played plenty of big games in their 57 previous meetings. Morgan says the Colonels always are up for beating a local rival, but doubts his players know much about that history.
“I don’t think James Wood vs. Handley is a big of a rivalry to some of them as it used to be when James Wood and Handley used to be the only schools in town,” Morgan said. “This sort of forces it to be amplified a little bit more. Obviously, there are a lot of people in the community who only care about James Wood vs. Handley. These kids don’t have a choice because Sherando and Millbrook are in the rear window [this season].”
Both teams have had their winning moments this season, but a couple of interesting trends have emerged in their losses.
In falling to Sherando and Liberty (40-27 last week), Handley committed nine turnovers, seven of those coming on interceptions.
Jones said those numbers are a byproduct of having a first-year quarterback who is learning on the fly. Former running back Malachi Imoh has been devastating carrying the ball (1,675 yards, 24 touchdowns), but has thrown an area-high 14 interceptions.
“We’ve got to be able to throw the ball and so you’ve got to be able to practice it in a game situation,” Jones explained. “We’re getting Malachi in situations that he can make a play when we need it. Unfortunately he’s made a couple of bad reads and bad throws here and there, but it hasn’t really haunted us in some games. The Sherando and Liberty games it came back to bite us.
“You have to practice it. You can’t ask a kid to throw the ball three times a game all of a sudden when we need him to throw the ball to ask him also to turn it on. I’ve put him into situations that may not have been the best in some games. We are getting better in our passing game which makes us more balanced, but we have to do a better job of holding onto the ball when we are running it. You are going to throw interceptions when you throw the ball. It’s part of life.”
James Wood has had trouble stopping their opponents in its losses. The Colonels have given up at least 40 points and more than 530 yards of total offense in each of their losses.
Now they face the district’s most dynamic player in Imoh, who has broken off long touchdown runs against everyone. Imoh had a 92-yarder during the Colonels’ 21-14 overtime win over the Judges last season.
“You hope that you can stop him,” Morgan said of Imoh. “You hope you have some magical pill and take and swallow him up as a defense, but that doesn’t exist and hasn’t existed for anyone this year. … As far as completely shutting him down, I would love it if that happens, but it’s unlikely. The big key is to limit his opportunities and limit his big plays.”
Without mentioning anyone by name, Jones indicated the Judges will do whatever it takes to move the ball. “This is no longer preparing for the future,” he said. “This is a playoff game. Whatever we can do successfully is what we are going to do.”
The Judges also face a challenge on defense. The Colonels lead the area in total yardage (385.4 per game). Also they are the most balanced team. Led by Sam Adkins (1,046 yards, 15 TDs), the Colonels have gained 1,671 yards on the ground. Led by quarterback Carson Hoberg (1,777 yards, 15 TDs) and receiver Jaden Ashby (42 catches, 9 TDs), James Wood has gained 1,798 yards through the air.
“They execute very well,” Jones said. “They don’t rely on just one person, They get many people the ball. Their running backs run hard. Their receivers run good routes and run hard after they catch the ball.”
The Judges will look to pressure Hoberg, but are wary of his scrambling ability. Hoberg had 41 yards rushing and a TD run against Millbrook last week.
“He’s a kid that if don’t put pressure on that can sit back there and hurt you,” Jones said.
The Colonels offense also will get a lift with the return of speedster William Crowder, who missed last week’s 40-37 loss against Millbrook.
What will it take to win Saturday? The answers for both teams are what anyone would expect.
“We have to slow Malachi Imoh down,” Morgan said. “That’s the number one goal when we are on defense. When we are on offense, we have to make sure we’re finding the right guys to block up front. They will line up six guys at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes they’ll send six and sometimes they’ll send four. We have to figure out who those guys are and block them appropriately.”
“We can’t turn the ball over,” Jones said. “We are minus-11 in those three games with Millbrook, Sherando and Liberty and we are 1-2. We’ve got to figure out a way to hang onto the ball and allow our defense to do what it has been doing — play great and keep us in the ballgame. When we figure it out, get a drive.”
Morgan said one more element could affect the outcome, which is so important to both teams.
“We also have to make adjustments because they are going to try to take away some things and we’re going to try to take away some things,” he said. “Both coaching staffs are going to have to figure out how to adjust during the game.”