Colonels, Judges to battle for Apple Cup, playoff seeding

This generation of Handley and James Wood football players have only seen or heard about the Barr-Lindon Crimson Apple being in their rivals’ trophy case.

When the two get together tonight in the regular-season finale at Walter Barr Field at Kelican Stadium, one of them will emerge with the trophy, awarded by The Winchester Star to the best football team in Winchester/Frederick County, and clinch a home game in the Region 4C quarterfinals next week.

Having been awarded since 2003, the affectionately nicknamed Apple Cup has never resided at James Wood. Handley, a four-time winner, last captured it in 2009 in a clash against the Colonels.

While many of the players have never even seen the trophy in person, they know plenty about what it signifies.

“We talk about it,” said Handley coach Dan Jones, a former Judges player and longtime assistant. “That’s one of our goals — to win the area. It is a big deal for our kids. They know about it and they want it because it represents the best in our area. You have to be the best in the area before you can be the best in the district and best in the region. It’s an important aspect for us to win that Cup.”

James Wood coach Ryan Morgan said the Colonels are not putting too much emphasis on the award.

“We’ve talked about it a little bit with the kids to just kind of explain to them what it is,” Morgan said. “Mainly, we’re just focused on beating Handley. We talk about all year long — like all coaches do — about taking it one game at a time. Now, that is a goal that we can achieve, but we don’t want to think too much about the ramifications outside of this game because we don’t want to get lost in all of the hoopla. The kids are aware of it and think that it would be a cool achievement but it hasn’t been the main focus of the week.”

Both teams know that they’ll be playing next week regardless of what happens tonight, but where that playoff game will be is determined by this outcome. Neither team has lost a home game this season.

“I think it helps kids bring a little more energy to a game when they are in front of a home crowd and are in their home environment,” Morgan said. “That’s big from a standpoint in being able to put yourself in the best position to win a first-round game and move on.”

“Since we know we are in the playoffs, we can be relaxed, go out there and play well and try to earn that right to play at home,” Jones said.

Both coaches expect a rough-and-tumble game between two squads that are both 4-1 in the Class 4 Northwestern District, having both fallen at district champion Kettle Run.

The Colonels (7-2 overall) rolled up a 56-7 win at Millbrook last week in a rivalry contest. Jaden Ashby had three TDs and Wes Brondos went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season as James Wood piled up 437 yards in offense. Via receiving and rushing, Ashby now has 17 touchdowns.

For the season, the Colonels have gained 1,663 yards on the ground and 1,492 through the air. James Wood’s defense has two shutouts on the season.

“They are balanced offensively,” Jones said of the Colonels. “They can run the ball and throw the ball. Defensively, they stop the run well. They put pressure on you and their secondary covers really well. They are a good football team.”

Handley (8-1) also is dangerous on the ground and through the air. Stephen Daley leads the area with 1,370 yards and 20 TDs on the ground. Emerson Fusco (553 yards rushing, 7 TDs) has surged down the stretch and Jacob Duffy has caught nine of Davion Butler’s 13 TD passes.

Daley (12 sacks, 26 tackles for losses) and former James Wood student Alex Barth (81 tackles) lead the Handley defense.

“They have athletes all over the place,” Morgan said. “They have got some guys up front who can move. They have some decent size. Obviously, Stephen Daley is a great athlete, but he is not the only one over there. No. 2 [Fusco] can run the ball pretty well and catch the ball.

“They’re really well-coached on offense and defense. I think [assistant] coach [Jim] Gaynor does a great job with their defense year-in and year-out. I think their offensive line is improved this year over some of the past years that we’ve played them. … They’re a solid team, all-around. They didn’t get to the point now where they’re 8-1 without being a good all-around team.”

Jones said the Judges also must be wary of James Wood’s special teams, which are led by assistant coach Jordan Hartman. Ashby (2 kickoffs, 2 punts) and Ryan King (1 punt) have returned kicks for scores this season.

“Their special teams has been a huge asset for them,” Jones said. “Special teams is a big deal and they’ve learned to use it to their advantage.”

Jones said it also will be important to get some pressure on James Wood quarterback Jared Neal, who has thrown for an area-best 16 TDs, with Ashby (9), King (3) and Zach Rose (2) catching multiple scoring tosses.

“From the film I’ve seen, they don’t really get pressure on him,” said Jones, whose team has 22 sacks. “It would be great for us to do that and see what happens — see how he reacts and handles it. No doubt, we have to get the ball out of his hands quickly so that they can’t develop their plays and put us in pickles.”

The reason Jones has not seen a lot of pressure on Neal is because the Colonels’ line has made sure of that.

“Our offensive line has done a pretty good job with pass blocking all year,” Morgan said. “It’s always a concern because you want to keep your quarterback upright. Obviously they have a Division I player [Daley] at defensive end who can get after the quarterback and chase people down from behind.”

What will it take to win?

Jones says his team can’t have the exchange problems that were part of having four turnovers last week in a 49-40 victory over winless Liberty.

“We have to hang onto the ball,” he said. “If we hang onto the ball and execute the way we have been offensively, we have a fighting chance.”

Morgan said the Colonels will need to keep an eye on Daley, but be prepared for whatever the Judges throw at them.

“We need to have an idea where No. 6 is at all times when we are on offense,” he said. “When we are on defense, obviously he does a good job of running the ball, but they spread the ball out to their different athletes really well, too. … It’s a lot about being smart and recognizing formations and personnel. It’s going to be a tough game schematically as well as physically.”

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