Seeking his first state championship in Alabama as 63-year-old veteran of the high school football coaching ranks, it came down to an onside kick and one final drive for his Tigers as running back Chris Dillard's touchdown with just 42 seconds left sealed a 20-14 win and Handley's first-ever state football title.
"The ball game was exactly what we thought it would be," Battles said. "We watched Madison Academy on film and they don't make mistakes and they don't beat themselves. They came out and played hard. I think it was all the ball game you could get in 48 minutes. We are just proud we came out on top. The ball bounced our way. Our kids hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese sandwich."
Trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter Handley drove the football from its own 35 all the way to the Madison Academy eight-yard line where the Tigers faced a fourth down and four yards to go. Giving the ball to running back Quay Hunter he was cut down by superb freshman Kerryon Johnson from Madison Academy to keep his team in the lead with just over six minutes left in the game.
Madison Academy was unable to move the football however and punted back to Handley with the Tigers finishing with great field position at the 31-yard line and just over four minutes left in the game. Facing a third and six at the 27 Handley gave the ball to big junior back Duran Zachery and he took care of the rest. Running through two tackles he raced into the endzone for the score to make it 14-13. It was his second touchdown of the game and brought Handley to within a point of the lead.
Deciding to go for two Battles put the ball in the hands of Hunter, but again Johnson came up with the big defensive play as he stopped the two-point conversion just short of the goal line. Now trailing with just 3:53 left in the game Battles called for the onside kick and Trae Kyles' executed it to perfection as teammate Dejaun Clark recovered to put Handley back in business.
Taking over on the 43-yard line Handley ran the ball on 10 consecutive plays, the last a one-yard plunge by Dillard to make it 20-14 Tigers. Madison Academy got the ball back with a final shot to win the game, but quarterback Hunter Olive's pass to Johnson was just wide of the playing field as the clock hit 0:00.
"We decided to go for two and we came up short," Battles said. "We were fortunate to get the ball back and were able to get it into the end zone. It was one of those gut check times. It's all it is, a gut check. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. That's all there is to it."
The MVP, Zachery finished with 75 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries for Handley. On the other side, despite just being a ninth-grader, Johnson did everything for Madison Academy. Running for 59 yards and a pair of scores on offense, he also added an interception and nine tackles on defense.
"It was just devastating," Johnson said. "Our seniors got us here and led us here. I just wish we had come out on top. They led us and told us not to give up. They got the two-point conversion and they told us it wasn't over. We drove down the field and had our chances, we just didn't come out on top."
Kerryon Johnson scores a touchdown
The game couldn't have gotten off to a better start for Madison Academy as Olive started strong by completing his first two passes of the game to move his team into Handley territory. Facing a second and 11 from the 47 Olive showed off his speed with a scramble down the right sideline for 15 yards. Then on a fourth and nine from the 31 he hit Nick Haas for 11 yards to move the ball to the Handley 20. On second down big Marcus Sease powered forward for eight yards to make it third and one and that's when Johnson finished it the 60-yard, 12-play drive off with an 11-yard touchdown.
Trailing 7-0 Handley took over later in the first quarter from its own 45-yard line and immediately got its patented ground game unwound. Five consecutive running plays gained 16 yards and left Handley with four yards to go for a first down. Following an incomplete pass Handley went back to the ground and Clark delivered with a strong 21-yard gallop down to the 15 of Madison Academy. Runs of six and eight yards by Quay Hunter put the Tigers in business and Duran Zachery finished off the game-tying drive with a touchdown run.
Late in the first half Johnson again came up big for Madison Academy as he picked off the Handley pass and returned it 37 yards to the Handley 39. Following a four-yard run by Sease, Olive hit Haas for 22 yards down to the Handley 13, but in an effort to fight for extra yards he fumbled the ball away with only :32 seconds left in the half.
The freshman continued to come up big for Madison Academy as his 24-yard run with 5:26 left in the third quarter capped off an impressive eight-play, 86-yard drive to put his team ahead 14-7. That's how things would remain until deep into the fourth quarter when Handley made the deciding plays on the way to the title.