In beating Millbrook 21-13 last Friday, Handley ended a four-game losing streak against the Pioneers, who were atop of the Class 4 Northwestern District football standings.
On Saturday, the Judges will face a challenge that has lasted twice as long — knocking off Sherando.
When the ball is kicked off at James R. Wilkins, Jr. Stadium at 1 p.m., Handley (6-0, 3-0 district) will be looking to halt an eight-game skid against the injury-plagued Warriors (3-3, 1-2).
After a 5-5 record in his first season as coach, Dan Jones said the Judges had learned how to win, but needed to figure out how to win in a big game.
Last week, the Judges met that criteria, rallying from a 13-7 halftime deficit to top the Pioneers.
“That was the first step,” Jones said of the triumph that put the program at 6-0 for the first time since 2009. “Now it’s how do we respond after a big emotional game that is our next step. You try to become a good program and after that you try to become a great program. It’s baby steps and you hope the kids can do it in the same year.”
Jones, also a longtime assistant at Handley, knows beating the Warriors won’t be easy. Sherando has owned the Judges in recent meeting, winning by at least 35 points in five of the last six matchups, including 42-0 last year.
“It’s Sherando,” when Jones was asked to assess the Warriors. “They are well coached. They are big up front and they’ve got athletic kids that do a lot of good things. They do a lot of different formations. They force you to be disciplined. Defensively they are sound. They force you to drive the ball down the field. They don’t give up big plays. They play great team offense and defense.”
The sledding has been tough all season for Sherando. The Warriors have suffered several injuries, most notably to starting quarterback Chacai Campbell after Week 2, and have faced many of the toughest teams in the early half of the district schedule. Sherando fell 20-13 to unbeaten Liberty last week. The Warriors three losses (Martinsburg, Millbrook and Liberty) have come to teams who are a combined 18-2.
Sherando coach Bill Hall says his players obviously aren’t happy with the season, thus far.
“Football is a lot about life,” he explained. “We have things that have happened to this team that aren’t fair, but life isn’t always fair. How do you respond to those things? We have to make sure we keep focusing on the things we can control. The people who we have on the field are the people who we have.
“How do we maximize the potential of the unit that is on the field? We haven’t done that. We have not played our best ball with the 11 people that are on the field at one time. When that happens, then you can live with whatever the result is.”
Hall certainly acknowledges that the Warriors have a challenge in containing Handley quarterback Malachi Imoh. The former running back has rushed for 1,145 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, while passing for 719 yards and six scores. He had three rushing TDs against Millbrook last week, including a 96-yarder.
“They have a really dynamic quarterback,” Hall said. “He’s 80 percent of their offense.”
Hall said what makes Imoh so hard to defend is his ability to improvise and turn a modest play into a big gain.
“I would say half the time that’s the case,” Hall said. “That’s not [to be critical]. He just ad-libs if things break down and he makes it right. He’s really good at that. If a play is designed to go to the right, it goes to the left for a touchdown.
“It’s really important that we do a good job of defending properly because he won’t always go where they are designed to go. … He is going to make plays. He is going to make people miss. Having a second, third, fourth and fifth guy to the ball will prevent a positive play from being an explosive play.”
“He’s one of those kids that it doesn’t matter the situation he has that potential to take it to the house on any play,” Jones said of his senior, who possesses blazing speed. “He’s that kid I’m glad I don’t have to coach against, but Sherando has kids very similar to him. If we don’t rally to the ball and tackle on a given play, they could make a big play out of it.”
Sherando does have big playmakers. Darius Lane has rushed for 921 yards and 10 TDs, while Jabril Hayes leads the area with 34 receptions. He has 454 yards and seven scores receiving.
Jones says he’s impressed with Sherando sophomore quarterback Dylan Rodeffer, who has now thrown for 611 yards and five scores.
“He’s a kid that’s improved every week,” Jones said. “Every rep he gets he gets better.”
Hall is hoping his offense can get some of those big plays, something that was a disappointment against Liberty, which held the Warriors scoreless over the final three quarters.
“Our efficiency was way off [against Liberty],” Hall said. “The playbook is wide open when it’s second-and-6 and third-and-5. It’s not when it’s third-and-15. We had three explosive plays last week and we average eight. On our first drive, we had an explosive play — touchdown. We had an explosive play on our second drive — touchdown. We didn’t have another explosive play until the last drive of the game.”
One of the big things that has hurt the Warriors is penalties. They now have 60 for the season, including 10 last week.
“We have to make sure we’re not hurting ourselves,” Hall said. “We want to dictate the game and not have the game dictate to us in terms of long-yardage situations. There’s only so many plays you can call in those types of situations.”
Handley’s defense has been doing plenty of hurting this fall. The Judges registered fives sacks and kept the pressure on Millbrook standout Kaden Buza for most of the game in shutting out the Pioneers over the final three quarters.
Stephen Daley, who left last week’s game in the third quarter, is “fine” according to Jones. Daley has nine of the Judges’ 15 sacks. Quinton Newman has 54 tackles for a defense that has forced 23 turnovers.
“You can’t let any quarterback from this point on sit back there,” Jones said. “They are all good and they all have the ability to hurt you if you don’t put some pressure on them.”
“They had double A-gap pressure, especially in the second half, and it was all-night long,” Hall said of the Judges’ pass rush. “Obviously, we have a plan for that. It means either keep more people in or the ball is going to come out hot. That will be up for them to figure that out and it will be up to us to figure out when pressure is coming.”
The Warriors can deliver pressure, too. Linebacker Payne Bauer has nine of the Warriors’ 12 sacks.
While both coaches say it’s difficult not to think about the district implications or the importance to winning the Barr-Lindon Crimson Apple trophy which goes to one of the four Frederick County-Winchester team that has the best record in head-to-head meetings, both are trying to keep the contest in a normal perspective.
“You can’t build it up too much,” Jones said. “It’s just another team that we are playing. We have to do what we do and perform at a high level because they are a great team.”
“Every game is important and significant and it’s the most important game because it’s this week’s game,” Hall said. “Obviously, there’s Apple Cup and district implications. All that stuff is true, but we have to focus on what’s it take for Sherando to be successful. If we are worried about districts and apples and all of those things, then we can’t focus on what we have to do to be successful within the ballgame.”
Both coaches have a little different take on what it will take to win on Saturday afternoon.
“This past week we were fortunate to have three turnovers and still win,” Jones said. “We’re not going to be able to get away with that every week. We have to hold onto the ball. To be honest, our best defense is when our offense is on the field. If we can sustain some drives and run some clock, it will be very beneficial for us this week to keep them off the field and wear them down hopefully. We have to rally and gang tackle. We can’t give up big plays.”
“It’s containing [Imoh] and the line of scrimmage,” Hall said. “I don’t want to say it will be that simple, but that’s what you have to do. It’s challenging to do that. … If you can control 80 percent of [their offense], try to make the other 20 percent beat you.”