WINCHESTER — Darius Lane couldn’t hold back the tears.
The Sherando running back had gone through a gamut of emotions in less than 10 minutes.
After having fumbled away the ball inside the final 30 seconds on a play that might have cost his team in Saturday’s thriller against Handley, Lane found the ultimate redemption in overtime.
Lane burst through a huge hole to score from nine yards out to give the Warriors a 34-31 victory against the previously unbeaten Judges at James R. Wilkins Jr. Stadium.
The triumph pushed the Warriors (4-3, 2-2) right back into the district chase and dropped Handley (6-1, 3-1) to a tie for second place behind Liberty (7-0, 4-0).
All of those numbers meant nothing to Lane, who rushed for 152 yards on 26 carries and scored three touchdowns. He was glad to get that redemption in overtime.
“I definitely felt a little weight on me,” said Lane of his fumble that came on a play from the Handley 8 as the Warriors were getting in position for a game-winning field goal attempt. “The coaches told me to play the next play. I heard my Pops in the stands tell me to stay strong. They gave me another boost. … I did it for my team, man. I did it for all of the players who are out right now, to give them a chance to come out here and play. It’s bigger than just me.”
The Warriors jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never trailed in regulation, but Handley made a stirring comeback in the third quarter, rallying from a 28-14 deficit to tie the game on big touchdown plays by quarterback Malachi Imoh and wideout Jayden Vardaro.
After the Warriors blocked a potential game-winning field goal from 43 yards out, they took over at their 28 with 3:16 left in regulation.
Lane, often taking direct snaps in the Wildcat formation, carried seven times for 35 yards in a march that ate nearly all of the clock and moved the ball to the Handley 8. But on Lane’s eighth carry, Handley punched the ball loose and recovered on the 4 with 15 seconds left.
That sent the game to overtime, where each team gets a chance to score from the 10.
Sherando won the coin toss and elected to go on defense first. Handley did not gain a yard on three plays (one rush, two incomplete passes) and had to settle for Adam Pollak’s 27-yard field goal.
“The attitude was to keep on fighting and keep on pushing,” said Sherando’s Jabril Hayes, who had two interceptions and a touchdown catch in the contest. “We knew that they have guys who can make plays so we had to be smart. … It worked out. They had to kick the ball and it got our offense on the field to make a big play to win the game.”
“We realized that our season was on the line there,” added linebacker Payne Bauer, who had an interception, a fumble recovery and 15 tackles. “We had to tighten our pants and do whatever we needed to do. We played like men down at the goal line there. It was pretty exciting.”
Sherando coach Bill Hall elected to go back into the same Wildcat formation with Lane taking direct snaps. He gained one yard on the first play, but ended the game on the next carry. He followed blocking back Bauer through a big hole into the end zone.
“The whole was wide open,” Bauer said. “You could have fit a truck through there.”
“I was determined. I knew I was going to score. I told myself I was going to score and that’s what happened,” said Lane blinking back tears. “It’s a lot right now, man.
“It feels great that I was able to do that for my team,” he added. “I thank all of my linemen. I thank my coach for giving me another opportunity even though I messed up.”
Hall said he had no second thoughts at giving Lane that chance.
“We put the ball right back in his hands,” Hall said. “You’re talking about a kid that’s invested four years and has poured his heart and soul into it. There was no way I was not going to give him the opportunity. I trust him.
“Sometimes those things happen,” Hall added. “There was nobody in the whole stands who felt worse than Darius. I knew he would hold onto it the next time.”
Lane’s score was popular with his teammates and others within the progam. One hugged Lane afterwards and yelled, “Redemption, that’s what they call that baby.”
“It’s beautiful,” Hayes said. “Darius is a guy who has been grinding 365 days of the year. To see him go out there and get that touchdown, it was big. I’m so proud of him.”
Handley coach Dan Jones said he was hoping the momentum had swung heading into overtime. “You get a big turnover before overtime and you hope it rolls in,” he said. “They found a way to get in and we couldn’t find a way to get into the end zone.”
Jones bemoaned the fact that the Judges were hurt by their own turnovers. Handley lost the ball five times, four on interceptions and one on a fumble. Sherando converted three of those miscues into touchdowns.
“We can’t turn the ball over, like I say every week,” Jones said. “When you turn the ball over, you put yourself in such a bad spot. We were fortunate to be where we were with five turnovers.”
Those turnovers started on the first play from scrimmage as Bauer picked off Imoh and returned it to the Handley 8. Two plays later, Lane rumbled in from seven yards out and Jack Hendren’s extra point made it 7-0 just 55 seconds into the game.
On Handley’s third possession, it was Hayes’ turn to make a pickoff, coming up from his safety position to grab a pass that hung up too long and he returned it to the 26.
The Warriors converted on the next play, a bit of razzle-dazzle they had been practicing all week. Lane lined up at quarterback, took the snap and pitched the ball to quarterback Dylan Rodeffer who rolled into the backfield from his spot in the slot. Rodeffer then fired a strike to Chase Wilde, who caught the ball in the end zone with no defender remotely close to him. That made it 14-0 with just under four minutes left in the first quarter.
After struggling most of the half, the Judges were able to close the deficit as the clock wound down in the second quarter. Imoh’s 48-yard scamper highlighted a 77-yard march. With no timeouts and the ball on the 1, Imoh was able to sneak in with 23.6 seconds left as Handley closed to 14-7.
After the halftime break, the Warriors wasted no time in pushing the lead back to 14. They went 60 yards in three plays, the final 41 as Hayes took a bubble screen, made a move and tip-toed down the left sidelines for a score.
“I saw the outside and it was just me and the open field,” said Hayes, who had eight catches for 90 yards. “I just ran down the side. I got tapped a little bit, but I kept on running and got into the end zone.”
Imoh, who was 2-for-5 with three interceptions in the first half, came out smoking in the second half, with Vardaro being his favorite target. Imoh was 5-for-8 for 64 yards on an 80-yard drive. On third-and-10 from the Sherando 13, he floated a pass to the back of the end zone that Vardaro grabbed just short of the end line.
Trailing 21-14, the Judges had a chance to get even, but a fumble gave the ball back to Sherando on the Handley 41. Lane needed just one play to score, ripping through the heart of the Handley defense on a 41-yard TD that made it 28-14 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
“That’s a credit to the defense to create turnovers,” Hall said. “Trying to bottle [Imoh] up is a challenge. You know he’s going to break some. You have to keep giving yourself a chance. When your defense gives your offense the ball, you have to punch it in. I was happy with the way we fed off of each other.”
But Imoh and Vardaro would have the Judges even before the third period buzzer sounded.
On the Judges’ next possession, Imoh scrambled away from pressure and dumped a short pass over the middle to Vardaro, who slipped a tackle and blazed 73 yards for a score.
Vardaro finished with four catches for 120 yards in his biggest game of the season.
“We’ve got enough weapons that it’s not just one person that runs the offense,” Jones said. “We’ve got to find ways to get those kids balls. When we do, they show us they can do good things for us.”
Just before the end of the period, it was Imoh’s turn. The senior dropped back to pass and then took off, cut to the right sidelines and then bobbing and weaving made several tacklers miss on a scintillating 60-yard TD run that tied the score at 28-28.
Imoh finished with 191 yards on 23 carries and was 12 of 24 for 192 yards.
The Judges actually outgained the Warriors 394-285. Jones felt the Handley defense, playing without injured standout Stephen Daley who was in street clothes on the sidelines, did a good job against the Warriors. Rodeffer was 14 of 19 for 140 yards.
“Our defense played great,” Jones said. “We just can’t turn the ball over and put our defense in bad situations. We gave them short fields and momentum. [The Warriors] played a great game. Hat’s off to them. They did what they needed to do to win.”
And it was a big victory for the Warriors, who now close the district race with games against Culpeper County (0-4 district), Fauquier (2-2) and Kettle Run (0-4). The Warriors now have tiebreaker edges over Handley and James Wood (2-2).
“Beating them, gives us the energy to work toward playoffs and to make a big run,” Hayes said. “This big win was great for us and it will propel us into the rest of the season.”
And Lane said getting to the playoffs is important for the Warriors, who have dealt with many injuries.
“We are not just playing for ourselves,” Lane said. “We are playing for the players who are out right now. Us getting this win and us getting [a chance] to extend our season, we are giving them a chance because we have players who are coming back soon.”
Handley will look to bounce back with its homecoming game on Saturday against Kettle Run. The Judges then close with games against Liberty and James Wood.
Jones said he’s interested to see how his team responds from its first loss. “We’ve learned how to compete and how to win a big game,” he said. “The one step we didn’t take this week was winning a game that we kind of were not the underdog for. That’s a big step.
“After a big win and after a big loss, you have to see how they respond. We’ve just got to come back and do what we do well and hope for the best.”