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By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Daquanta Pannell's fashion sense could soon be all the rage in the Northwestern District.
The Handley High School senior defensive back wore all the required equipment for Friday night's matchup against host Millbrook -- from his helmet to his cleats -- with perhaps one important addition.
"I just had gloves, my regular gloves, and my good-luck bracelets," Pannell said. "That's pretty much it."
After snaring two interceptions and returning one for a 60-yard touchdown in the Judges' 26-9 victory, Pannell's teammates and maybe even his opponents might soon be wondering just how they too can get hooked up with some "good-luck bracelets."
Pannell's heroics helped Handley shake off a slow start against the Pioneers, as both teams muddled through the early going under a steady misting of rain.
Millbrook finally broke the scoreless tie in the second quarter with a 31-yard field goal from Derek Davis that capped a drive aided greatly by a rare pass completion from Justin Neff to Boomer Kaczmarzewski for 32 yards.
Handley needed two more possessions to finally formulate a response in the form of Chris Skinner's 60-yard touchdown dash. On the scoring play, Skinner popped through a huge gash opened by his offensive line, made for the right sideline and outran everyone to the end zone to put the Judges up 7-3 with 2:25 left in the first half.
Then Pannell struck for the first time as he gathered in a ball from Neff that tipped off a Millbrook receiver's hands.
"I saw them go out into the flats and I saw it kind of tip off [his] hands, so I just tried to get underneath of it as best I could," Pannell said. "As soon as I got the ball in my hands, I just ran as fast as I could so nobody could catch me."
That play was foremost in Millbrook coach Reed Prosser's mind after the game.
"I thought we played really, really well," Prosser said. "We played great on defense in the first half, then they split a run. Then right before the half, we had decent field position. We ran a bootleg, it ended up being a nice play -- we had a tipped ball they were able to return. I thought that was a big play."
Pannell made another big play right before the half, coming up with his second interception deep in Handley territory after two teammates tipped the ball his way.
"He just has a knack," Handley coach Tony Rayburn said. "Those are things you don't coach. That's just kids making plays."
Millbrook, which lost running back Logan Rodeffer on the game's second play when the junior was met head-on by Handley's hulking defensive lineman Derek Dowrey, put together its best offensive drive of the night early in the second quarter after the Pioneers' Garrett Williams drilled Handley quarterback Will Dearing from behind to force a fumble at the Millbrook 33-yard line.
Neff capped a 13-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and the Pioneers trailed by only four at 13-9 with 3:04 left in the third quarter.
Three plays later, that deficit was back to 10 after Dexter Sloane shot though another hole up the gut, high-stepped out of a would-be tackle and raced 58 yards for a touchdown.
"They caught us in a blitz and Dexter made a really nice run," Prosser said. "That stretched it out. He made a really nice cut and our guy slipped, and he was able to take it a long way."
Another Handley interception, this one by Chris McDaniel, set up Handley's final touchdown late in the game. Dowrey finished off the clock-killing four-play drive with a 16-yard touchdown run.
"Our defense we knew would hopefully carry us through the big games, and it did tonight," Rayburn said. "We made some big plays. We're getting some turnovers now, we're making things happen, and we're taking care of the ball a little bit better on offense."
Handley still had some issues on offense, fumbling four times and losing two while passing for only eight yards. But Handley piled up 279 rushing yards in the win.
"The offensive line, that's the main thing -- without them, we wouldn't do anything," said Skinner, who finished with a game-high 147 rushing yards. "They had a heckuva a game tonight, heckuva game."
Sloane, despite carrying the ball only seven times (all in the second half) added 90 rushing yards and Dowrey had 34 for the Judges.
"It's a nice mix-up between the three of them because you can bring Derek in late and pound them a little bit," Rayburn said. "I think we have two kids who are capable and hopefully we'll get to see them both carry the ball. I think they add a little bit different dimension, both of them do different things well."