When you hang close with the champ, you don’t necessarily have to win to learn that you belong with the big boys.
That’s the lesson that the Handley Tigers and head coach Larry Strain hope to carry with them after Friday’s wet 20-7 loss to defending state champion Leeds in Roanoke.
“We played a heck of a ballgame tonight to be honest with you,” Strain said. “And really I didn’t know how good we were, but we’ve got a heck of a ball team now. And I’m not saying that boastfully by any means whatsoever. But that team [Leeds] is a good football team right there. They’ve got a chance and probably will win it again. If we can hang with them like that, we’ve got to feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
Handley trailed 14-0 at halftime after the Leeds defense stonewalled the Tigers’ every effort at moving the football. Handley managed just 22 total yards and two first downs and lost a fumble in six first half possessions.
They also lost starting tailback Mikeia Trammell when he suffered a leg injury in the first quarter and never returned.
But Handley displayed new energy at the start of the second half, and made a game out of what could have easily become a Leeds blowout.
“I normally don’t have any kind of speech at halftime,” Strain said. “But they looked like they were going to a funeral. I basically told them, there’s times I’m going to have to pat you on the back, and there’s times I’m going to have to kick you in the rear. It’s a 14-0 ballgame, and you act like we’re beat. I said we’ve got to get our heads up. Our attitude’s got to change. I gave it to them a little bit, and they perked up a little bit, and came out and played. I think it’s a tribute to the type kids we’ve got.”
Handley opened the second half with a flawless 8-play, 71-yard drive in which Trammell’s backup Josh Hatcher played a pivotal role. Hatcher rushed for 18 yards and caught a screen pass for another 15 to help set up Rhett Fetner’s 6-yard touchdown run that cut the Leeds lead in half.
Fetner completed three passes to three different receivers for 42 yards on the drive as Handley offset Leeds’ aggressive pass rush with a series of short throws that turned into sizeable gains.
Handley forced a punt on the next Leeds possession then went on the move again. The Tigers got a big momentum boost when Hatcher gained 27 yards on a third-and-28 play, and Handley then converted the fourth-and-1 at the Leeds 30-yard line.
Handley appeared poised to tie the game, but rain had begun to soak the field and a wet ball contributed to a Handley fumble inside the Leeds 15-yard line near the end of the third quarter. Leeds recovered the ball, and Handley was never able to mount another serious threat.
“What I was happy about, they shut us down on offense in the first half. But in the second half we found another way,” Strain said. “We schemed up a few things. These kids picked up their game a little bit. Rhett made some good plays to the receivers. We had a chance. If we don’t have a fumble and a turnover down here we’ve got a chance to possibly tie it up or even go ahead with a two-point conversion. That’s how close this ballgame really was.”
Leeds made it a two-score lead with a timely halfback pass from Tre Nation to Koi Freeman when the Handley defense was stacked on the line to stop the run in the fourth quarter.
Fetner went 12-for-21 for 159 yards passing. Hatcher was the main target at he caught three passes for 55 yards. He also led the Tigers on the ground with seven carries for 31 yards.
Freeman caught five passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns, while Nation led the Green Wave with 24 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Handley did a solid job defensively against quarterback TaDarryl Marshall, who is committed to play at the University of Tennesse. Marshall rushed nine times for seven yards and completed just 4-of-8 passes for 54 yards.
Handley held Leeds to its lowest scoring output this season since the Green Wave managed just 14 points in a season-opening loss to Madison Academy.
“It was easier on them moving the football than it was easy on us moving the football,” Strain said. “But look at our defense. [Leeds] has been scoring as many as they want to score, and look what we did to their quarterback, shutting him down. He didn’t break any long runs. They had to drive it.”
Handley is now 5-1 overall and still controls its own fate in pursuit of a top-two finish in the region. If Handley wins its final two region games against Elmore County and Dadeville it is assured of at least a second place finish in the region and a first-round playoff game at home.