WINCHESTER — Time and time again on Saturday afternoon the Handley defense had come up with big stops against Loudoun Valley.
But given one last chance, the persistent Vikings would not be denied in the closing moments, scoring on quarterback Trevor McClelland’s fourth-and-1 sneak with 26.4 seconds left to defeat the Judges 13-9 in the Region 4C quarterfinals at James R. Wilkins Jr. Stadium.
Loudoun Valley (7-4) advances to face Dulles District champion Broad Run (11-0), a 34-26 winner over Millbrook, on Friday. The Spartans defeated the Vikings 28-14 in the regular season. Handley ends at 8-3, the Judges’ most number of wins since 2010.
“Our kids never quit and that’s all you can ask for,” Handley coach Dan Jones said after the tough loss. “Sometimes, you don’t come out on the right side of it.”
The Judges, who struggled throughout the game with Loudoun Valley’s defensive front, trailed 6-0 at the half, but finally got even on Malachi Imoh’s 29-yard strike to Dayvon Newman 33 seconds left in the third quarter. The extra point was blocked leaving the score tied at 6.
Just two plays from scrimmage later, Stephen Daley recovered a fumble on a strip sack at the Vikings’ 27. A 14-yard Imoh run set up Adam Pollak’s 32-yard field goal that put the Judges ahead 9-6 with 10:35 to go.
The Judges defense stiffened after Loudoun Valley drove 50 yards to first down at the 18. Three plays netted one yard and the Vikings’ 36-yard field goal attempt to tie the game was short, giving Handley the ball on its own 20 with 2:02 left.
Two Handley runs lost seven yards, but cost Loudoun Valley its final two timeouts with 1:52 left.
Jones then rolled the dice on a trick play that had been successful for the Judges multiple times this season. Imoh fired a lateral to wide receiver Mason Smith, who then threw downfield to tight end Daley. Smith’s pass was on the mark, but Daley couldn’t hang onto the ball after a long run. The incompletion stopped the clock.
“I don’t know that I would change what I called,” said Jones of the play. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward type of play. I don’t know that 20 seconds would have made a difference with what was going on. You’ve got to try something. We tried running the ball and we were losing yardage.”
After a short punt, Loudoun Valley took over at the Judges’ 37 with 1:39 left and needed 10 plays to get into the end zone. After two incompletions, McClelland hit two straight near the sidelines to move the ball to the Judges’ 14.
On third-and-1, McClellan bulled his way 11 yards to the Handley 3. After a sneak netted a yard, McClellan spiked the ball with 44.8 seconds left. He tried another sneak that pushed the ball to the 1. After lining up quickly, McClellan followed right guard Nath Collora into the end zone for the game-winner.
“I knew we were going to get it in,” said McClellan, who finished 11 of 22 for 128 yards and a score. “We’ve been working that stuff in practice — two-minute drills and one-minute drills. We knew we were going to get it in. We told each other we were going to get it in. The seniors stepped it up big time. We knew that was our play.”
“We got lucky that the kid dropped that pass,” Loudoun Valley coach David Bishop said. “Once he dropped that ball and we were able to get the ball back, I had every confidence in our offense that we were going to punch it down. We work on that every Thursday and it was like perfect.”
The Judges weren’t quite done. Taking over at the 20, Imoh tossed a jump-ball to Jayden Vardaro, who pulled it down at the Loudoun Valley 42 with 10 seconds left. Needing a Hail Mary, Imoh launched a high pass toward Dayvon Newman, but All-Dulles District safety Andrew Corkrey picked it off just short of the end zone on the game’s final play.
It capped a stellar day for the Loudoun Valley defense, which bottled up Imoh and the Judges’ running game like no other team this season. Imoh, who had 29 rushing TDs entering the game, was held to 37 yards on 17 carries and did not score a rushing touchdown for the first time.
Cooper Thunnel and Jack Cutrara led a charge up front that held the Judges to those 37 yards on 23 carries. Imoh completed 10 of 25 passes for 161 yards, with two interceptions.
“The scheme they ran was good and they had the personnel to do it,” Jones said. “Some people have tried the same scheme on us and we just couldn’t execute and get it done today. It’s not for our kids’ lack of trying. Loudoun Valley played their hearts out and gave us more problems than we’ve had all year.”
“Our defense was killing it,” McClellan said. “Our defense was amazing.”
Jones bemoaned a couple of first-half chances that the Judges nearly connected on that could have changed the outcome. Early in the game, Imoh’s toss was just out of reach for Vardaro, who was deep behind the Vikings’ secondary.
Late in the half, a penalty forced the Judges to abort a field goal attempt.
Even later, Daley ripped the ball out of Loudoun Valley running back William Degn’s hands and fell on it at the Vikings’ 6 with 35.5 seconds left before the break.
Imoh ran left for 5 yards, but was ruled inbounds at the 1 although he ended up several yards out of bounds. The Judges had to spike the ball there. Imoh then ran two plays up the middle — one for no gain and the final one for a loss of a yard.
“That bothers me the most,” Jones said of the last play. “I don’t think I gave our kids the best opportunity to compete. I should have called something different, tried something else or even kicked a field goal. That’s the play that bothers me the most because it’s more on me than it was on the kids on that play.”
And missed chances often come back to hurt you, especially in the postseason.
“We had three opportunities today that I thought we didn’t take advantage of,” Jones said. “It’s just those plays you have to do in a playoff game against a good team like Loudoun Valley.”
Prior to the final drive, Handley’s defense had produced three turnovers and held the Vikings on a fourth-and-1 play at the Judges’ 4 in the first quarter. McClellan’s six-yard TD pass to Degn early in the second quarter was Loudoun Valley’s lone score until the final drive. The Vikings had just 104 yards on 40 carries.
“Once again our defense played outstanding,” Jones said. “When you hold a team to 13 points, your defense did exactly what you asked it to do.”
Linebacker Quinton Newman, who was in on many tackles Saturday, said the Judges’ success was simple. “It was the discipline,” he said. “It was the feeling that we had to win.”
Newman was one of 17 seniors on the squad. Many had played together on an unbeaten team at Daniel Morgan Middle School and helped revive a Judges program that was winless in 2015.
“I’m really proud of my teammates,” Newman said. “I wouldn’t really want to pick any other teammates to do this with. ... We got so close. It’s like it’s my own brother. I feel like I can’t really be mad [with Saturday’s loss] because I know they have my back and I have theirs.”
Jones is grateful for what the seniors and the rest of his players accomplished this fall. “You couldn’t ask for more from them,” Jones said. “We were kind of faltering there as a program and this senior class and this team changed everything. The brought us right back to where we need to be — in the playoffs.”
Bishop knows a little bit about how Jones and the Judges feel, too. Loudoun Valley had just four total wins over its previous two seasons.
”It’s just awesome,” Bishop said of Saturday’s win. “Two years ago, we won only three games. Last year, we won only one. The seniors in the offseason led this team. They put in the work. The head coach left in the summer and I took over and there were no expectations for this team. What these kids have done has been truly amazing.”