ATLANTA — When the school year began, Hillgrove wanted to jump in and field a team in the state’s newest girls sport — flag football.
With other traditional sports in season, attendance at practice was slim and week-by-week efforts to recruit players barely kept the team afloat.
Now, the Lady Hawks are one game away from being crowned the first Class 6A/7A state champion, beating Allatoona 12-0 on Wednesday in an all-Cobb semifinal at the Home Depot Backyard plaza adjacent to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It feels like we came into this accidentally, but we are glad we did,” said junior Lauren Render, who completed a 22-yard pass and caught a 13-yard touchdown to give Hillgrove a 6-0 first-half lead. “We found out there were college coaches here. We didn’t even know this was a college sport. Going to state, behind here at this event, it’s all been a really cool experience, because we didn’t expect it.”
Hillgrove will play for the title Monday at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. against West Forsyth.
Hillgrove, which lost to Allatoona earlier in the season when its roster was more in flux, pitched its third straight shutout after a 21-0 win over Westlake and last week’s 6-0 win over Forsyth Central.
“We have to play a monster, whichever team we get,” Hillgrove coach Daniel Pinckney said. “Have we caught up with them? I don’t know. But I’m just so appreciative of the support of this community, the faculty, everyone who came out. We’ve had tremendous support, and we wanted to succeed for them. But the glory goes to the girls, because they came out and wanted to get better every day.
“If you asked me on Aug. 17 if we would be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and preparing to play for a championship, I would have told you, ‘No way.’”
Hillgrove used a quick, short passing game to neutralize the size of Allatoona’s defensive unit, but it set up both of their touchdowns on trick plays.
Render’s first reception — a 21-yard catch on fourth-and 1 — came on a double-pass, with quarterback Lindsay Bell motioning in just before the snap. Bell then hit Render for a 13-yard touchdown two plays later.
In the second half, leading 6-0 late, the Lady Hawks once again looked to get behind the defense, sneaking the shorter Coco Carleton behind the defense on another double-pass. This time, it was Render throwing the ball.
“We scouted how their defense played on film,” Carleton said. “They like to keep everything in front, but also are coming downhill, so we knew we would eventually be able to get something over the top.
“It was the first time we ran that play all season to me, so I’m glad I caught it.”
Bell hit junior Victoria Shanhan for the score to put the game out of reach, and Shanahan added the exclamation point with an interception just before time expired.
The Lady Hawks were led in receiving by Jasmine Blackburn, who caught nine passes for 45 yards. Bell finished 18-of-21 passing for 119 yards, five first downs and two touchdown passes. She also recorded two sacks, while Kaylan Sacus added another sack.
Allatoona was outgained 160-62, as quarterback Lauren Ford was forced to throw in tight windows all game. She finished 8-of-14 for 40 yards and rushed eight times for 21 yards and two first downs.
Ford and her teammates were visibly dejected after the loss, but they took pride knowing they had blazed a trail for flag football, which could become a staple for years to come.
“I’ve been throwing the football around in the yard ever since I was a little kid,” Ford said, “but this was just so amazing. To be here, at this stadium, playing in front of hundreds of people — knowing that we were able to start something new, in its first year, makes us really proud.”