Instead of fielding a punt attempt which sailed over his head and deep into Indians territory, McEachern punter Tyler Smith did what he was probably taught to do and booted the ball through the end zone and out of bounds for a safety. That broke a 10-all tie and gave Hillgrove a two-point lead with 3:48 left.
Fortunately for the sixth-ranked Hawks, their defense made that margin stand, and they beat top-ranked McEachern 12-10 on Friday at a packed Walter Cantrell Stadium to remain undefeated in Region 4AAAAA, and hand the Indians their first loss of the year.
The energy in the stadium was evident from the start in a game deemed the “Battle Down in Powder Town.” And while this year’s matchup in the budding rivalry was nothing like last year’s 64-48 shootout, it had the same kind of intensity and pressure you’d expect from two top-10 teams.
“We’re not as exhausted after this one, like we were last year, but this is still a big win,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said. “The kids played great. This was a great atmosphere, and we’re going to have to figure out a way to handle this win and great ready for next week.”
Hillgrove (6-0, 3-0) led 7-3 entering the fourth quarter.
McEachern’s Nicholas St. Germain connected on a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter to put the Indians in front 3-0 with 6:51 on the clock. But one possession later, the Hawks’ Justin Haney recovered a Tray Fletcher fumble, giving Hillgrove the ball at its own 35.
The Hawks converted the turnover into a six-play, 65-yard scoring drive, capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass through the middle of the field from Elijah Ironside to Kelvin Cameron, that put Hillgrove ahead with 2:43 left until halftime.
The Hawks maintained their four-point advantage after St. Germain failed to connect on a 41-yard field-goal attempt at the start of the fourth quarter, but they didn’t do themselves any favors offensively after giving up three fourth-quarter fumbles to McEachern (5-1, 2-1). The first was forced by the Indians’ Darius English, who stepped in front of a pitch to Ike Erege, and it was recovered by Da’Quavious Lewis, who returned it for a 10-yard touchdown and 10-7 McEachern lead.
Hillgrove’s Kenyan Drake, who rushed 24 times for 187 yards, broke several tackles en route to a 62-yard run to the Indians’ 18 following the first play from scrimmage after the touchdown. A few plays later, Austin Trevors made a 28-yard field goal to tie the contest at 10-all with 9:08 remaining.
The last of Hillgrove’s three fourth-quarter fumbles came after it gained possession of the ball following the safety. The Hawks picked up a first down with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game, but English recovered Drake’s miscue on second-and-5 to breathe new life into the McEachern comeback.
However, the Hillgrove defense, which forced two first-half interceptions — one from John Silas and another from Nakevion Leslie — and recovered two fumbles — one from Haney and another from Dylan Mitchell — pressured McEachern quarterback Trent Thompson all game and limited the Indians’ offense to minus-13 yards in the fourth quarter. Thompson, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 215 yards and two interceptions, failed to connect on his final eight attempts.
“Our defensive coaches did a heck of a job,” Phil Ironside said. “I’m proud of our guys for holding a fantastic offense like McEachern’s to no points, at least in terms of touchdowns. They did get the field goal.
“We preach to the kids over and over that you don’t know how the game is going to unfold until you get there. Then, you’re here, and you play, and you have a shot at winning. It was just a great job by them.”
Hillgrove nearly put the game away on its only possession of the third quarter. The Hawks drove 90 yards to the Indians’ 1-yard line, but McEachern stopped the drive and Hillgrove turned the ball over on downs after three straight rushing attempts to maintain a 7-3 margin with 4:03 left in the period.
McEachern found itself inside Hillgrove territory on six of its first seven possessions, but could only score three points off the 49-yard St. Germain field goal. The Indians’ final three drives were all three-and-outs.
“I talk to these kids about taking this show on the road and playing big in big games,” Ironside said of the Hawks’ success in road games, including last year’s playoff run. “I talk about that to the guys all the time, and they responded again (Friday).”
Elijah Ironside completed 12 of 17 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown to lead Hillgrove. Evan Engram caught four passes for 51 yards, and Cameron totaled three receptions for 42 yards and a score.
Amba Etta-Tawo paced McEachern’s receiving corps with nine catches for 137 yards, while Fletcher totaled four receptions for 73 yards.
McEachern coach Kyle Hockman declined comment after the game.
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