The Handley football team has lived on the ragged edge this season, winning three straight Class 4 Northwestern District games by a total of 18 points.
But with a regional playoff berth in their back pocket, the Judges get a shot at winning the district title against the only team that’s beaten them — Kettle Run.
Handley (3-1, 3-0 district) hosts the Cougars (4-0, 3-0) at 1 p.m. today with the district title going to the winner. The title is more important than bragging rights because the winner will get to host the Dulles District runner-up Broad Run in the regional semifinals, while the loser will travel to 2019 state finalist and Dulles champion Tuscarora (5-0).
The Judges are happy to be back in the playoffs, but face a stiff test against a Cougars team that knocked them off 48-14 in the season-opener, which was a non-league game. That contest was tied 7-7 after one quarter, but Kettle Run outscored Handley 27-0 in the second quarter and built their lead as high as 41-7 early in the fourth quarter.
Kettle Run quarterback Elijah Chumley threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for two more in the contest. He has multiple receivers who can do damage and he gets rid of the ball quickly.
“They are tremendous,” said Handley coach Dan Jones, whose squad is coming off a 14-13 nail-biter against Liberty. “Right now, they’ve got to be the favorite. They average like 40 points a game. They’re balanced. They run well and throw well. Their quarterback has only gotten better every game. We saw them on film against Liberty. They are definitely better than Week 1 and we are better than we were when we played in Week 1.”
The Judges certainly believe they have improved since that shellacking. Entering that contest, several of Handley’s top skill players had just a week of practice because they were on the basketball team that advanced to the state finals.
Stephen Daley, one of those players, believes the Judges are much different team than the one that faced the Cougars at Liberty High School on Feb. 27. Kettle Run has been the only opponent to hold the Judges’ junior standout with a sack this season.
“I think we have a better understanding of our offense,” said Daley, who broke the Handley career sack record he shared with Dexter Sloane with 2.5 last week. “On defense, the secondary is a little bit better. Against Kettle Run, you had people who were playing the first time on varsity, you had people coming back from basketball and we only had five days [of practice]. Now we have a couple of games under our belts and we know what it’s like to play.”
“I feel like we’re a completely different team because we’ve had more practices in,” linebacker Leland Walkling agreed. “… It wasn’t a district game the first time so we wanted to hide some stuff for when it counts.”
Jones agrees with his players that the Judges are a different team.
“It’s 180 [degrees],” he said. “We now have everything in. We have different things that we can do when teams take away certain things.”
Liberty tried to take away the rushing of Dayvon Newman (64 carries, 427 yards, 3 TDs) last week, but was burned as Daley notched 119 yards on five carries, including a game-winning 72-yard TD run. Newman was effective, but played just a quarter against Kettle Run.
For the third consecutive game, quarterback Aidan Haines fired a touchdown pass to Jayden Vardaro, who now has 19 catches for 323 yards.
But the Cougars’ defense has been stingy. Charlie Porterfield’s club has given up just 13 points since facing Handley and for the season the Cougars have outscored their foes 154-27.
“They are very physical up front,” Jones said of the Cougars’ defense. “The secondary is as athletic. They’re a tough team to understand and figure out a weak point in a sense. I really don’t know how to attack them. We’ve got to do some things with smoke and mirrors and kind of confuse them, but they are well-coached and they are going to be hard to confuse. Hopefully we play better than the first week and then we’ll see what happens.”
Jones says the key today will be making adjustments.
“We have to figure out what they’re doing against us offensively and defensively,” he said. “Then, we have to do what we do well. We’ve just got to make them uncomfortable — which I don’t know we’re going to do because they are very balanced both on offense and defense — and put them in a different situation than the they’ve been in all season and hope for the best.”