It's time to start including the Handley Tigers in the conversation about the best high school football programs in the state of Alabama.
And it's time to start talking about junior Tae Meadows as one of the state's best running backs.
Meadows rushed for 264 yards and four touchdowns on 38 carries to lead Handley to a 35-20 victory over Gordo in Friday's Class 4A state championship game.
The win gives Handley three state titles in the last 10 years, putting them in elite company among the most successful programs in the state when it comes winning the coveted blue map over that time.
Handley put on a less-than-perfect performance against Gordo, but the Tigers' defense atoned for a world of sins with a second half shutout of the Green Wave's high-powered passing attack.
Gordo 4-star quarterback Tanner Bailey got his yards, but Handley made him work for them. Bailey came into the game completing almost 70 percent of his passes for the year, but the Tigers harassed him into a 16-for-36 performance for 222 yards, two touchdowns and a game-sealing interception that landed in the arms of Handley's Quadae Lewis in the game's closing moments.
Handley sacked Bailey three times and kept him under constant pressure.
That was enough to keep Handley in the lead despite several missed opportunities throughout the game.
Handley started five of its seven first-half possessions in Gordo territory, but managed to score just three times in those opportunities. One scoring opportunity was washed away with an end zone interception by Gordo, while Handley missed out on another score later in the game when quarterback Evan Cofield fumbled inches from the goal line. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
But Handley's defense made sure that those missed chances weren't game breakers. Gordo's five second -half possessions went punt, 3-and-out, punt, turnover on downs, interception.
Handley's third title in the last 10 years and second for head coach Larry Strain puts them in rare company over that time. The only teams that have won more titles since 2011 are UMS-Wright, Fyffe, St. Paul's and Hoover.
The three titles over that time match the total for teams like Maplesville and Piedmont and exceeds the number won by programs like Tanner and Clay Central.
As for Meadows, who was named the title game MVP for his superb performance, get ready to hear about his stock rising on the recruiting trail. This week he received his first D-1 offer from Tennessee, and the belief that many more will follow between now and the start of his senior year.
The first half of Frida's game was a stalemate on the scoreboard, but Handley left several opportunities on the field and didn't capitalize on a decided advantage in field position.
The Tigers also had two potential interceptions fall through their hands in a crucial sequence near the end of the first half on a Gordo possession that ended in a touchdown with one second remaining on the clock. That cut the Handley lead to 21-20 at the break and put momentum on Gordo's side.
Handley fell behind 6-0 after Gordo scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Bailey with 1:23 left in the first quarter. The Tigers answered on their next possession, when a 30-yard pass play between Evan Cofield and Dylan Brooks set up Meadows for a 1-yard touchdown run and a 7-6 Handley lead.
Handley never trailed after that. Ayden Robertson punched one in from a yard out after Gordo botched a punt deep in their own territory to put Handley up 14-6. From there the teams swapped scores the rest of the first half, setting up Handley's strong second half showing.
Meadows scored from 1, 2, 23 and 1 yard out to give him 30 rushing touchdowns on the season. That breaks the less-than-a-year-old Handley school record of 29 set by Devontae Houston last season.
Handley relied heavily on the run on offense as 340 of their 384 total yards came on the ground. Cofield added 17 carries for 75 yards as Handley turned to an option dominant offensive game plan with Cofield and Meadows accounting for almost all of the touches.
Handley finishes the season with a record of 12-1. It's the third state title in school history after wins in 2011 and 2016.
Look for much more coverage of Handley's state championship in next week's print edition of the Randolph Leader.