The coach who led Wellborn to some of its greatest football glories and who has coached Handley since 2004 also met a pair of admiring eyes. They belonged to Wellborn coach Jeff Smith, who played all four of his high school seasons under Battles.
“He made a big impact on my life,” Smith said. “I didn’t have no daddy. Coach Battles was my daddy, and I’m where I’m at now because of him.
“It was real hard to see him on the opposite sideline and on this field, where he spent 15 years up here.”
It’s even harder to beat Battles’ team.
The third-ranked Tigers improved to 8-0, 6-0 in Class 3A, Region 3 headed into next week’s region showdown with No. 4 Leeds (7-1, 5-1). A Handley victory at home clinches the region title, but a Leeds victory likely forces a three-way tie also involving Clay County (7-1, 5-1), which beat Leeds this season.
Clay County beat Marbury 40-14 on Friday and wraps up region play at Central Coosa next week.
Wellborn (5-3, 3-3) will battle Marbury (5-3, 3-3) for a playoff berth next week.
But the region standings took a back seat to Battles’ return to The Hill, where he went 97-55-1 in three stints as the Panthers’ coach, the last ending after the 2003 season. On Wellborn’s senior night, Battles saw his first game in the stadium while coaching another team.
As his impressive-looking line of athletes filed through the gate back to the locker room after pregame warmups, acquaintances wearing home black and white called him over for a handshake. Glad hands also awaited him on the field after the game.
“It’s been a long time, and a lot of these guys played for me,” said Battles, whose Tigers beat Wellborn at Handley a year ago. “A lot of the sons of guys who played for me were out here playing.
“I’ve got a lot of good friends out there and a lot of good memories.”
Friday was one of them.
Handley scored on three of its first four plays from scrimmage, built a 36-0 lead by 10:05 of the third quarter and outgained Wellborn 369 yards to 253.
The Tigers scored on their first play from scrimmage, Breyon Deberry’s 50-yard run, and third, quarterback Trae Kyles’ 43-yard run. Next time Handley touched the ball, Herbert Staples broke a 45-yard touchdown run.
Chris Dillard’s 41-yard catch and run after a short Kyles’ pass made it 29-0 at 10:41 of the second quarter. Kyles’ 45-yard bomb to Tevin Cook set up Kenny Seiffert’s 1-yard touchdown run at 10:05 of the third. Handley was every bit a Battles-coached team.
“Hard-nosed, good defense,” Smith said. “It’s stuff he stressed to us when I was growing up, and it’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Wellborn showed life for their third-year coach, scoring on consecutive possessions in the third and fourth quarters. Landon Machristie broke a 22-yard run up the middle to get the Panthers on the board at 2:59 of the third quarter, and Chantz Goodman rushed 21 yards for a score at 9:40 of the fourth.
Judd Smith’s conversion run made it 36-15.
Battles re-inserted his first-team offense, which mounted a 12-play, 54-yard drive culminating in Duran Zachery’s 2-yard touchdown run with 2:03 to play.
Wellborn answered again, with a six-play, 52-yard drive. Judd Smith passed 15 yards to Dalton Screws for a touchdown on the game’s final play.
“It feels good that at least we did a little something,” Goodman said. “I wish the game would have went better than it did, but we had to fight it out some way and get something on the board.”
Wellborn’s finish pleased Jeff Smith, who told the Panthers at halftime that the second half would be a character challenge. That his father figure on the opposing sideline saw the Panthers’ keep fighting meant something.
“I want us to look good in front of him, I sure do,” Jeff Smith said.
Battles praised his former player and team.
“Wellborn played all the way to the end, and it’s just that we’ve got a good football team right now,” he said. “Coach Smith and them, they were prepared. It’s just we’ve got some tools and talent, and we were able to use it.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.