James Wood knocks off Handley in overtime

WINCHESTER — After giving everything they had with their bodies during a muddy, rain-filled, two-hour-and-40-minute slugfest with Handley on Friday night at Kelican Stadium, James Wood’s football players couldn’t wait to put their vocal cords to the test with a chant.
Yes, the Colonels defense definitely lived up to the challenge to play like a “stone wall” this week.
James Wood junior Luke Esparza’s tackle of Handley senior running back Zkyah Johnson at the Colonel 2-yard line in overtime clinched a 21-14 win and capped a stellar defensive effort on Senior Night.
James Wood (4-5, 2-3 Class 4 Northwestern District) trailed 14-0 after Judges junior running back Malachi Imoh’s 92-yard touchdown run with 11:34 left in the second quarter.
Over the last 35 minutes and 34 seconds and one possession of overtime, James Wood shut out the Judges, allowed only 52 yards, and had four takeaways, including an interception that set up their first touchdown and a fumble recovery in the end zone for its second TD.
And while the Colonels didn’t register a tackle on the game-tying safety with 6:19 left, the pressure on Handley to move the ball against them from its own 2-yard line on that play probably didn’t help. Handley had a timing issue on the center-quarterback snap exchange, and quarterback Jacob Parker fell in the end zone while he tried to secure the ball to make it 14-14.
James Wood then stood tall and resembled a wall in overtime in keeping Handley out of the end zone after Jackson Turner’s six-yard touchdown run and Christopher Garcia-Ortega’s extra point made it 21-14.
The loss was the fourth straight for the Judges, who fell to 5-5 overall and 1-5 in the district in their final game of the season, while the Colonels won their second consecutive game.
“We were just talking this week about the defense being a stone wall,” said a drenched James Wood head coach Ryan Morgan, whose team also stopped Imoh for a two-yard loss on fourth-and-2 from the James Wood 12 in the first quarter when the game was scoreless. “We tried to do the best that we could to not allow yardage and be solid up front, and with our linebackers, and with our tackling. It was the mentality we wanted to have.
“Our defensive coaching staff did a great job of preparing the guys. We allowed a couple of big plays on defense, but we thought what we were doing was pretty sound. We just needed to make sure we tackled well. After they got 14 points, we did a pretty good job. The defense had to pull us through tonight because the offense wasn’t clicking.”
James Wood recognized the players who were involved in its intense 9-7 win over Handley 50 years ago on Friday night when both squads came in with 9-0 records.
Friday night’s game might not have had the same stakes, but it was pretty special for the Colonels.
The players took advantage of the wet field after the game, celebrating by sliding on their stomachs into both the end zone and the middle of the field. James Wood was 0-8 against area rivals Handley, Millbrook, and Sherando since the beginning of 2016 before beating the Judges.
Turner — who had 32 carries for 97 yards and two touchdowns — answered “100 percent” when asked if this was the biggest win James Wood has had in the last few years. The Judges entered Friday’s game with their most wins since 2013.
“I’m incredibly proud of our team for sticking through,” said Turner, who also plays linebacker. “That’s a tough opponent right there. That’s the best Handley’s been in a while. I’m so proud of our brothers for sticking through it and fighting as hard as we could. This was an amazing team win.”
Handley actually outgained James Wood 250-187 on Friday, but all that mattered offensively was that the Colonels got the 10 yards they needed in overtime to take the lead. Turner picked up four yards on first down up the middle. He then scored on the next play, churning hard for the final two yards when it looked like he might be stopped.
James Wood didn’t have much luck running on the edges because of the sloppy conditions, with William Crowder picking up 57 yards on 14 carries (20 yards on one of those attempts) and Sam Adkins gaining 13 yards on seven carries. It wasn’t easy for Turner either, but his numerous runs up the middle were clearly the best part of James Wood’s offense on Friday.
“His nickname’s ‘Hammer,’ and he’s proved that’s a fitting nickname tonight,” Morgan said.
After Handley got the ball in overtime, Imoh (23 carries for 139 yards) started the Judges off with four- and three-yard runs to the James Wood 3, but he was dropped for a three-yard loss on third down.
Handley’s passing attack was limited greatly by the rain, but on fourth down the Judges decided to throw to go-to player Kevin Curry. The senior wideout surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season on Friday with 85 yards on three catches, including a 40-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that made it 7-0 following the first of Adam Pollak’s two extra-point kicks.
Curry never had a chance to add to his collection of leaping end zone catches because James Wood committed pass interference. The penalty moved the ball to the 3-yard line. The penalty did not give Handley a fresh set of downs, however, because pass interference is not an automatic first down in high school unless the penalty yardage allows a team to reach the first-down marker, and there is no first-down marker in overtime.
Given another opportunity, Handley elected to put the ball in the hands of Johnson (nine carries, 29 yards Friday). Johnson made a strong burst toward the right, but Esparza — who backed up a couple of steps into the end zone after the snap — ran up to stop Johnson two yards short of the end zone.
“I thought they were going to toss it back up to Kevin Curry, and I saw that it was another run that they bounced back out,” said Esparza, whose 21-yard interception return set up Turner’s three-yard TD run that cut Handley’s lead to 14-6 in the second quarter. “Since we were double-covering Curry, it was my job to fill the lane right there. I just saw it as ‘I need to tackle this, and we can win.’ I went up there, gave it my all, and tackled him.”
Handley felt more comfortable running the ball in Friday’s wet conditions — Parker went 4 of 12 for 109 yards, one TD and two interceptions — so coach Dan Jones felt the best thing to do was to try to keep the ball on the ground after the pass interference penalty.
“[Esparza] made a heck of a tackle,” Jones said. “He came up and stuck him. They both ran hard, and unfortunately for us, their kid won.”
Though the Judges couldn’t get much going on offense after Imoh’s touchdown, they still might have won had they not committed so many mistakes.
Colonels senior Luke Roy recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 14-12 after Parker couldn’t connect with Imoh on a toss to the left from Handley’s 5-yard line with 2:28 left in the third quarter (the two-point run attempt after the TD failed). Austin Schmitt had actually recovered another Handley fumble five plays earlier at the Judges 14, but Stephen Daley (one sack Friday for his area-leading 15th) helped stop Adkins for no gain on fourth-and-1 to give the Judges the ball on downs.
Imoh had a high snap go through his hands on a punt attempt from the 50 late in the third quarter, forcing him to fall on the ball at Handley’s 29 and giving the ball to the Colonels on downs.
The Judges’ defense again came up big by stopping Crowder a yard short of the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 3. (Morgan decided not to try for the field goal because of the wet conditions. James Wood couldn’t get a kick off after its first touchdown because of a high snap.)
But two plays later Parker fell in the end zone after a bobbled snap, tying the game at 14 with 6:19 left as a result of the safety. Parker said there was an issue with the snap count on the play.
Handley’s defense made another big stop by forcing a three-and-out after the safety. On the Judges’ next possession, Imoh picked up two yards on a fourth-and-1 fake punt from Handley’s 27, and a 17-yard pass to Curry had the Judges in business at their own 46 with less than three minutes left. But then Handley committed three procedure penalties on the next four snaps, leading to a punt.
“Too many mistakes,” Jones said. “[James Wood] executed well. They played well. They played hard. We unfortunately made too many mistakes.
“[Defensive coordinator Jim] Gaynor had the defense ready. They knew exactly what [James Wood] was going to run. They fought hard, they gave us every opportunity to win the game. Offensively, we just couldn’t keep it going.”
Curry and Leland Walkling each had interceptions for the Judges, who had three total takeaways.
Parker was visibly upset after the defeat. Parker took over starting quarterback duties in the middle of Handley’s winless season in 2015, but he helped them improve the team’s win total each year (two in 2016, four in 2017, five this year.)
“Just three years ago we were 0-10, so five wins is something the team can really be proud of, no matter what the final outcome was [Friday]” Parker said.
“I told the kids after the game they have nothing to be ashamed of,” Jones said. “They fought hard [this season], they competed with great teams. We took a step forward as a program. What we’re trying to do is develop a program now, and this senior class has really put us in a good spot.”
Treyven Mandel also had an interception for the Colonels.
Roy — the only member of the team who played varsity when James Wood beat Handley in 2015 — was glad he and his fellow seniors could end their home careers on a high note. The Colonels finish at Kettle Run next week.
“You knew [Handley] was coming for blood,” Roy said. “It was their last game, and they were trying to go out with a bang. But we weren’t going to let it happen. Not on our home field. Especially on Senior Night. It was emotional the whole time this week in practice.”
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