Handley too heavy for Calera

If you missed Calera’s 21-7 loss to Handley in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs Friday, there’s no need to watch the full replay. One play will suffice.

Calera’s Justin Brickler closed on Handley’s Ladarious Phillips without difficulty, tracking down the heavyset running back and aiming for his chest. But instead of a making a score-saving tackle, Brickler was swatted to the field by a Phillips’ stiffarm. The back rumbled 46 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, his second of the game.

Phillips carried 16 times for 135 yards in the second half against an overmatched Eagles defense. Handley deployed two blocking backs ahead of Phillips the duration of the game, and Phillips outweighed every player on Calera’s defensive line by a wide margin.

“Every one of our defensive line guys could be playing running back. They’re all about 160 pounds. That’s the one kink in our armor is it’s hard for us to stop people from running straight at us,” Calera head coach Mac Thompson said. “They had the full-house backfield and the running back who’s about 260 and crammed it down our throat. He got fired up, and he just started pounding. There’s really not a whole lot we can do about it. Hope they turn the ball over.”

Phillips never fumbled despite a downpour in the second quarter that transformed the grass into oatmeal. It was Calera’s Eugene Rogers that committed the game-changing fumble.

With the score tied, 7-7, Calera tried a toss sweep to Rogers from the Handley 1-yard line with :02 before halftime, and Rogers fumbled. Calera drove 69 yards and came away empty.

“It would’ve been huge for us. We probably would’ve ended up winning the game had we gotten in right there,” quarterback Brandon Wells said.

Calera’s offense collected a few first downs in the second half but never got close to the end zone.

“We made some decent plays in spurts, but we didn’t put together a complete drive, and that’s kind of what’s gotten us all year,” Thompson said. “Against lesser opponents we’ve been able to survive. You play your second and third round playoff games, you can’t come out and sputter.”

Wells led the Eagles, rushing for 115 yards and completing 13-of-27 passes for 145 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Trent Posey. But for most of the second half, Wells stood at the edge of the green tarp, right where it met the mud, clutching his mouthpiece between his locked hands and running his thumb back and forth over its shape with a blank expression across his helmetless face.

“[Phillips] is just a big guy. It took three or four of ’em to tackle him and he was gaining five yards a pop,” Wells said.

Though Thompson suggested his players wore down, particularly those that played offense and defense, no one gasped for breath or bent over gripping their knees between plays. They met Phillips at the line of scrimmage nearly every play but couldn’t halt his churning thighs.

“It made a difference because he was heavier. When you got under him and got your feet moving, he’d still make the play,” said Erik Burrells from his vantage point in the middle of Calera’s defense. “He overpowered us.”

Some expected that to happen more frequently to Calera (7-5) this season after graduating 18 seniors from last year’s team that made the 3A semifinals. The Eagles returned one offensive starter and replaced all-time leading quarterback Paul Winterbottom with Wells, a sophomore. Still, the Eagles advanced to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs and have a lot of production coming back next year.

“Most people didn’t expect us to win three or four games, but they did a good job fighting all year,” Thompson said. “We had a lot of young guys playing and they’re growing up.”

Handley (9-2) will play Lincoln next week in the 4A quarterfinals.