By Brian Eller
WINCHESTER -- This was the game Warren County was waiting for. This was the game players had circled on their calendars, the one captains Gage Steele and Damien Caison talked about back in August.
The anticipation was brewing. The intensity was, too. Warren County was ready for this game -- or so it seemed.
Following a back-and-forth first half Saturday, Handley's offense opened things up, scoring four touchdowns, en route to a convincing 35-7 win over the Wildcats.
"I think the key was we got better this week like we preached," Handley coach Tony Rayburn said. "We did a nice job of worrying about the things we can control, the execution, the big plays and I think we've done that. I think Warren County's a good football team and we got a lot of the breaks today, but I was proud of how we improved."
The final score doesn't tell the whole story, as the first half provided a stout, defensive matchup.
In the opening two quarters, Warren County and Handley had trouble finding the end zone, as both defenses got off to a quick start. The Judges focused their gameplan on Steele, making sure to have multiple maroon jerseys sprint to the ball. It was a strategy that worked, as Steele was held to just 75 yards and out of the end zone.
"I think that's more of the Judges demeanor because coach, he [instills] that on us at practice," Handley cornerback Trae Peck said. "[In practice] If were not [all] 11 [going] to the ball, then we're running again. And [then] in the game it's almost like natural and I love how we flow to the ball."
Warren County's defense, meanwhile, was faced with Handley's collection of athletes at the tailback position, where Peck and Delroy McDaniel shared the bulk of the carries.
Peck found more success on the ground, totaling 176 yards on the day, but it was his skills on defense that helped Handley strike first.
Backed up deep in their own territory, Wildcats quarterback Tyler Post faced a second down, and dropped back to pass down field. A fierce Judges pass rush flushed Post out of the pocket, forcing him to try and throw the ball out of bounds. His attempt was tipped, however, and the ball hung in the air. Seconds later, Peck snatched it and headed for the end zone, putting Handley ahead, 7-0.
"I was drooling," Peck said. "I saw Derek [Dowrey] tip the ball and I was just like, 'I gotta get under it.' When I caught it I had three of my players down there, one of their players, I thought touchdown."
Peck's interception would be the only score of the first half, but it didn't take long for the home team to get on the board in the third quarter. After a heavy rushing attack, Handley opened things up in the passing game, with the help of quarterback Josiah Patrick.
Patrick completed both of his passes on the Judges' first drive of the second half, none bigger than a 40-yard touchdown throw to receiver Jaivon Wilson, doubling Handley's lead to 14.
Despite the deficit, Warren County moved the ball down the field on the ensuing drive, taking several minutes off the clock as Steele and Robert Canby helped move the chains into Handley territory. The drive soon stalled, however, and Handley took possession deep in its own territory.
This time, Peck showed his skills on the offensive side of the ball. On a simple handoff, Peck ran untouched up the middle of the field, scampering for a 64-yard touchdown run with a little less than three minutes left in the third quarter.
It seemed that score deflated any intensity Warren County had left. Just two minutes later, Handley again found the end zone, as McDaniel burst through for a 34-yard touchdown run, ballooning the Judges lead to 28.
"This meant a lot to us," McDaniel said. "No offense to Warren County, they came out fired up and we were telling our teammates we have to bring the intensity, we have to be the hammer not the nail and we had to go out there and just have fun."
Though the game appeared to be in hand heading into the fourth quarter, Handley's offense wasn't finished. Once again, it was Peck lighting up the scoreboard, or so he thought. During what would be marked as a 63-yard run, Peck was streaking down the right sideline at Warren County's 5-yard line. With a defender trying his best to reach him, Peck slowed his pace, drawing a taunting penalty from the referees and negating the touchdown.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the infraction didn't put a damper on Handley's offense. On the next play, McDaniel finished off the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run, sealing the win for the Judges.
"They made some nice adjustments," Warren County coach Tony Tallent said. "They're healthy, you know, they've got all of their kids back and I'll be honest with you, there's no excuses for the way we performed. We will get better. We can't help but get better."