By Tommy Keeler Jr. -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Jordan Hartman couldn't believe his eyes.
The football lay perfectly on the turf at the Handley Bowl with no one touching it, no one even near it. Hartman quickly scooped the ball up and raced into the end zone.
"I scooped it up and there was still nobody there," Hartman said. "I just tried to run. That's all you think about, 'there's the ball scoop it up and go.' And I just went and finally got it in."
The touchdown gave the Pioneers the lead Saturday and it would be all they would need in a 16-0 Northwestern District victory over Handley. There is now a four-way tie for first place in the district between Handley, Millbrook, Sherando and James Wood. Handley plays at James Wood next week, while Sherando plays at Millbrook in the final game of the regular season.
The Pioneers (5-4, 2-1 Northwestern) set the tone for the game on the very first possession. The Judges (5-4, 2-1) appeared to force a three-and-out to start the game, but Millbrook punter Boomer Kaczmarzewski ran a fake punt and picked up 27 yards to keep the drive alive.
"It's a built-in play, it's his call," Millbrook coach Reed Prosser said. "He can do what he wants. He's a great athlete and we trust him. That was a big play."
The Pioneers eventually missed a short field goal, but ran nine minutes off the clock on the drive.
On Handley's second possession, the Judges moved the ball to the Handley 21. Handley quarterback Harrison Bayliss connected with Jaivon Wilson on a short pass, but Millbrook's Adrian DeNeal stripped the ball out of Wilson's hands, which Hartman scooped up and ran 27 yards for the touchdown with 5:56 left in the first half.
The Judges turned the ball over on each of their four first half possessions and finished with five in the game. On Handley's next possession, Bayliss was intercepted for the second time by DeNeal.
"You want to talk about a sophomore growing up -- that's something that happened right there," Prosser said. "Adrian played fabdabulous, lights out, played great. I couldn't say enough about him.
"He's had some flashes all year. He really stepped up tonight."
The Pioneers used 10 plays to go 81 yards. Curtis Daily finished off the drive from 1 yard out for a 13-0 lead with 17 seconds left in the half.
Millbrook ran 37 offensive plays in the first half, compared to only 13 for Handley. The Pioneers were able to use long drives to keep Handley's offense off the field.
Hartman said the play of the offensive line was a big key in the win.
"We told our guys up front, let's not come out flat like we have been the last couple weeks," Hartman said. "Let's come out strong the first quarter and show them who's going to win the line of scrimmage today. They did a great job for us."
Hartman, who broke the Millbrook single-season and career rushing records last week, finished with 132 yards on 35 carries.
Handley was playing without starting running back and defensive back Trae Peck. Handley coach Tony Rayburn said Peck didn't play due to a violation of school rules, but he is hopeful he will be back for Friday's game at James Wood.
Handley is still in good position in the playoff picture and has plenty to play for in the final regular season game.
"We have to learn from our losses," Rayburn said. "The kids have to make sure they are at practice on time every day and that they are ready to practice hard. We have to get ready to face a really good James Wood team."
Prosser said he used the poem 'Invictus' by William Ernest Henley as inspiration for his team this week. The last lines of the poem are, 'I am the captain of my fate. I'm the captain of my soul.'
"That's what we talked about all week was, 'let's just persevere,'" Prosser said. "'We make what happens to us, not chance or fate.'"
The win guarantees the Pioneers a playoff berth, and the team also used that as motivation.
"We said if we win this game we're in the playoffs basically," Daily said. "We wanted to make sure that happened.
"Our motto for this week was find a way. No matter what it takes, we just gotta find a way to win. And we did."