Leading up to Friday’s region opener against Munford, Handley head coach Larry Strain said that the Lions were the team to beat in 4A, Region 4. After Handley overcame a mistake-filled first half to come away with a 38-28 win, it begs the question.
Is Handley now the team to beat?
“This was the first major hurdle that we had to face. It was, in my opinion, the team to beat coming into tonight,” Strain said. “I don’t know that that makes us the team to beat. I’m sure Anniston and Jacksonville and Cherokee County will have something to say about that. That’s coming in the future, so we’ll get to see.”
For now the Tigers can relish a hard-fought victory in which everyone got to see just how good Tae Meadows is when he’s unleashed for a full four quarters.
Meadows rushed for 289 yards and five touchdowns on 26 carries, an inspired performance when Handley needed every bit of that productivity.
But Meadows, like much of the team, had to overcome a lackluster first half. Handley did little to slow down a Munford offense led by quarterback Ja’isiam Tuck, and even Meadows lost a fumble on a first-half run.
Fortunately for Handley the halftime score saw the Tigers trailing by just two points, 20-18. But Strain knew the overall play of his team needed to be addressed in the locker room.
“We didn’t feel like the effort was there, and the deep-down heart of really wanting to be a champion,” Strain said. “We talk the game. We talk how big and bad we are and how rough and all this, but when it comes to the point of getting it done, we weren’t getting it done.”
So Strain went around the room and individually called out his starters one by one.
“Nobody was spared. I got on all of them,” he said. “I said, ‘So I don’t want to hear it. Don’t come in here and blame it on nobody else. It’s all of us.’”
The message clearly hit home, and that was embodied in the play of Meadows on offense and of Ahmad Staples on defense.
On one of his first carries of the third quarter Meadows was hit in the backfield almost immediately after receiving the handoff. He somehow kept his feet after that hit, then broke through at least two more tackles before finally being wrangled down. But it was the kind of play that gets an entire team fired up.
“I thought he sparked us really in the third quarter,” Strain said. “After we had that challenge [in the locker room] he came out here and probably broke three, four, five tackles, just running over people and just refused to go down. I thought that lit a fire under some of our other kids and made them play harder.”
Meanwhile Staples, the senior defensive lineman, seemed to make it his personal mission to rein in Tuck. Staples led the team with 6.5 tackles, three of which went for negative yardage.
“I’d hate to know I had to block him when he gets mad. I think he got mad in the second half,” Strain said.
The teams traded blows for most of the first three quarters, with Meadows scoring on runs of 36, 38 and 37 yards in the first half and Tuck passing for two touchdowns and running for another.
Meadows’s fourth touchdown, a 9-yard run midway through the third quarter gave Handley a 24-20 lead, but Tuck again answered with 45-yard touchdown pass to Rashard Russell with four seconds left in the quarter.
That’s when Handley got the only touchdown in the game that didn’t involve either Meadows or Tuck.
Maurice Cameron returned the ensuing kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown as the third quarter clock expired to give Handley a 30-28 lead and a shot of momentum going into the fourth quarter.
The Handley defense rose to the occasion, limiting Munford to minus-3 net yards and just one first down in the final frame and setting up Meadows for the decisive blow.
That came on a 24-yard touchdown run with 8:42 left in the game that put Handley up 38-28 and took the air out of Munford’s shot at another rally.
With the win over Munford Handley takes an early lead in the race for the region title. Handley will have this week off before returning to action on September 18 at Cleburne County.