Facing the 2019 state runner-up, which has Division I recruits at multiple positions, seems like a pretty daunting task for the Handley football team in the opening round of the Region 4C playoffs.
But Handley coach Dan Jones isn’t about to tell his team that it is an underdog when the Judges (3-2) travel to Tuscarora (5-0) at 7 p.m. tonight.
“I don’t like to approach anything as an underdog,” Jones said after practice on Tuesday. “I think we go in and do what we do. If we play well and do what we ask, then that’s all you can do. If we’re fortunate enough to have points at the end, that’s fantastic. I just want to play well. I want us to play a great game and put it all on the line. Whatever happens just happens at that point.”
Not accepting the role of an underdog doesn’t mean that the Judges don’t respect the Huskies, led by coach Brandon Wheelbarger. Tuscarora has beaten all but one of its opponents by at least three touchdowns. The one close game (20-19) came against rival Broad Run, which is facing Class 4 Northwestern District champion Kettle Run tonight in the other Region 4C semifinal.
“They’re good,” said Jones. “They’re well-coached. They execute well. They do a lot of great things. They can run the ball. They can throw the ball. Defensively, they are as sound as any team we are going to play this year. They’re the defending state runner-up. You name it, they have a lot of things going for them right now.”
Offensively, they are led by Bryce Duke, one of the best running backs in the state. The 6-foot, 205-pound junior has piled up 1,207 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns in this short season. He broke a school mark with seven touchdowns in a 70-27 win over Independence.
Duke, who rushed for 216 yards and three TDs in a 47-21 win over Sherando in the 2019 regional playoffs, reportedly has 13 scholarship offers from Division I programs, including the Big Ten, ACC and all three service academies.
What makes Duke, the Dulles District’s Offensive Player of the Year, so good?
“It’s hard to explain,” Jones said. “He’s elusive and tough. He’s like a pinball. He bounces off tacklers. He kind of gives when you tackle him, so that you can’t wrap up. He churns those legs and he’s quick as heck.
“He gets his yards and he’s deceptive. … The kid is special. He’s got a bright future and if we don’t gang tackle he’s going to embarrass us.”
But Jones said the Tuscarora offense is not just the Duke Show and he is impressed with quarterback Sonny Mannino. At 6-foot-4, the junior is a classic pocket passer and has completed 81 of 111 passes for 1,001 yards and 10 TDs. Three of those touchdown passes came in the triumph over Broad Run. His favorite targets are Caleb Coombs (Marshall) and Ryan Upp (Morehead State), who will both play in college, and Christian Camacho, also a standout defensive back.
“People talk about Duke so much, but that quarterback is good,” Jones said. “He stands in the pocket. He’s tall and has a strong arm.”
The Judges’ defense has been very good against the run this season. Handley, led by end Stephen Daley (43 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), linebacker Leland Walking (41 tackles) and tackle Rodd’ney Davenport (25 tackles, 5 tackles for losses) is allowing just 98 yards per game on the ground.
“Our kids have confidence that we can stop the run,” Jones said. “That’s one positive. We’ve got to be able to put the full package together. We have to stop the run and stop the pass. We have to force them to do some things they don’t like to do, but I don’t know what that is because they do everything so well.”
The Judges have done most of their damage on the ground this season. Dayvon Newman has 504 yards and five touchdowns on 80 carries and Daley has 282 yards on just 24 carries. Quarterback Aidan Haines (36 of 67 for 565 yards with 4 TDs and 5 interceptions) has a dangerous target in Jayden Vardaro (25 catches, 438 yards, 4 TDs).
Handley will face a defense led by another Division I recruit in 6-foot-2, 265-pound defensive end Matei Fitz. Headed to James Madison, Fitz was selected as the Dulles District Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
He’s flanked by first team all-district selections Leo Orozco (linebacker) and Rainer Halveland (defensive end).
“He’s another special kid for them, but their whole defense is sound,” Jones said of Fitz and company. “He makes big plays and makes you have to focus on where he is and to find him, but he has a lot of good players around him, too, that makes it more difficult. If you try to double him, which you have to most of the time, it leaves another kid that’s very good to be one-on-one. It’s a battle and a challenge to think of what to do to take advantage of them.”
Jones said last Saturday’s 39-21 loss to Kettle Run for the district title certainly pointed to some things the Judges need to do better. Handley led 14-7 early in the second quarter before the Cougars scored 32 straight points.
“We have to be more consistent,” Jones said. “We had plays that were there, but for one person. We have got to have 11 guys on offense running what we need to run. If we execute, we have a good chance. On defense, it’s the same thing. We set up things to take away certain things and we didn’t do that very well. We just have just got to be consistent and make plays when we have to.”
And he sees that on the other side.
“That’s why they are so good,” Jones said of the Huskies. “Both they and Broad Run are very consistent. They are sound and when they do something they do it right. When you are consistent every play, it’s hard to get a big play on them. It will benefit us if we can be more consistent. We’re good on some plays and awful on others right now.”
While the loss to Kettle Run loss was difficult, the playoffs reset the season.
“Hopefully, we look at it as that we have one game in front of us and if we’re fortunate we’ll have another one,” he said. “If not, I just hope we play our best and everybody can walk off the field proud of the effort they put out there.”