E.A. Sports Today

Homecoming of sorts

Strain, White will have mixed emotions Friday bringing undefeated Handley to White Plains, where both served as head coach

County Head Coaches vs. Former Teams
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Jonathan Nix, Pleasant Valley vs. Ashville0-1
Mark Sanders, Donoho vs. Victory Chr.2-2
Clint Smith, Jacksonville vs. Saks1-5
Jeff Smith, Wellborn vs. Ohatchee5-2

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

ROANOKE – When Larry Strain and Chris White first saw the new AHSAA realignment last year they couldn’t have been happier. The Handley football program they were coaching was going to be in a league with a lot of familiar opponents and a whole lot easier to get around from here relative to the one it had been the previous two years.

Then they saw the lineup of teams with which the Tigers were aligned and one jumped off the page – White Plains.

Strain had been the Wildcats’ head coach for one year and White for the four seasons after that and now with the new alignments, for the next two years at least, they would have to play their former team, going back there at last once.

The first time comes Friday night when the fifth-ranked 4A Tigers (6-0) travel to White Plains (3-5) to play their region finale with a shot to clinch the region championship. 

“I don’t know what the reactions are going to be, to be honest with you,” White said. “It’s going to be real strange standing on the other sideline, for me it is. There’s no doubt it’s going to be strange. It’ll be strange for the kids that I coached to see me on the other sideline, too. I don’t know how they’ll feel. They may hate my guts or something like that. I don’t hate their guts or anything like that. I just made the decision (to leave) professionally for me.”

White coached White Plains from 2015 to 2018 winning only four games and one point enduring a 24-game losing streak. But the Wildcats’ offensive production improved each year and he was convinced they were making progress when he left abruptly to join Strain’s staff as offensive line coach (and now defensive coordinator as well) after the season, an opportunity that opened because of the relationship they forged in their year together at White Plains.

Strain coached the Wildcats in 2014, taking the job to be closer to his daughter who was starting her college basketball career at Jacksonville State. He said at the time the only two jobs he’d be interested in leaving for were Clay Central and Handley, where he stated his coaching career, and the Tigers came calling after the season.

His White Plains team went 2-8, but upgraded the weight program and opened up the offense after an 0-4 start and 27 points and the Wildcats scored at least 30 points in four of their last six games and more than 40 in three of them.

Strain agreed “it’s going to be odd walking back in that stadium and be on the other sideline,” but suspects it will be a little tougher on White, who still lives in the community, because he wasn’t there nearly as long and is six years removed from his time there. None of the players he coached or the coaches on his staff are still in the program, so his connections to what he called “a great community with great kids” are just a bunch of fond memories.

“My first thought was, woo, that’s really early to go back and see them; you’d like to have a few years under your belt,” White said. “First of all, it’s about the players, it’s not about the coaches. I don’t play the game anymore. Coach Strain doesn’t play it any more. It’s about getting our kids ready to play their kids. But you hope there’s not a lot of nyah-nyah going back and forth because there’s no sense in that. We’re all grown up. No sense in that … I think everybody’s probably pretty much moved on. It’s coach (Chandler) Tyree’s team now.

“But I’m watching film and you look out there and you see Carson Wright out there and you got to coach him when he’s in the seventh grade. You see Jaden (Chatman) at quarterback. You see Walker O’Steen over there. You see the guys up front, Kendrick Ball … Dylan Garner … Colby Knight got hurt a few weeks ago, I saw that on film. You see all those guys you got to coach.

“It probably would be better to be honest to go back with guys you never built a relationship with. That’s going to be tough looking out there because now I’m coaching these guys now who need to go against those guys I coached before. Of course, my motivation is to get our guys ready to beat them.”

Because of the crazy season Handley has endured this year – losing so many home games to other teams’ COVID-19 shutdowns – Strain is just glad the Tigers are playing another game. They’ve been open or awarded forfeits in five of the first nine weeks of the season. Three of the games would have been at home, costing the program an estimated $40,000 in revenue – and they’ll have to return those games on the road next year. Strain is looking into appealing to the state for some relief.

It’s not the first time the two coaches have gone against a former team or players. When you’ve been in the business as long as they’ve been, it’s bound to happen.

In Week 2 this year the Tigers played Munford. Not only was it a place White used to coach – he was the Lions’ offensive line coach in 2006 after eight years at Westbrook Christian – it’s his alma mate and that was his first time to coach against them.

“That was really emotional,” he said. “I know what it’s like to wear that headgear down there, the pride of that community – my parents still live in Munford – and what it means to be a Munford Lion. That’s a big deal, to me. That was really kind of tough to go out there and coach that football game. I was a long way from there, but I knew a couple kids on the team because I had played football in high school with their dads.”

Strain had to coach games against his brother in basketball and football. And then there was the time he was facing a Lanett team in the girls basketball regional finals with a player who became like part of the family that summer as a travel ball teammate of his daughter.

“Those are the times that are the hardest, when the kids are involved,” Strain said. “Don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of that community, but it’d be a lot different if that was the same staff that I had and the same kids I had.”

Has anyone thought how tough a game it could be for the families? White’s wife is a White Plains graduate and so are his two daughters.

But school pride can carry the day only so far.

“I can tell you now, my wife and kids will sit on the Handley side, there’s no doubt about that,” White said. “Because you’ve always got to remember one thing: That supper that’s provided every night, where’s it come from?”

On the cover: White Plains coaches Chris White (left) and Larry Strain (center) on the sideline together during a 2014 game.

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