After powering its way through the North Star League in the last several seasons, the Hillman football team has taken its share of lumps in 2012.
The Tigers have battled injuries, departures and the growing pains of youth this season, but as the first week of the playoffs begins tonight, Hillman is one of the teams still standing.
Hillman (5-4) will play at Johannesburg-Lewiston tonight at 7 p.m. in a Division 8 predistrict game.
News File Photo
Hillman’s Alex Cheek (21) runs the ball during a football game earlier this season against Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett at Hillman High School.
This year's playoff berth has made Tigers' coach Bill Koenig appreciate what his team has been able to accomplish through an up-and-down season.
"It makes you kind of think about what you have. We've battled injuries all year and we were switching running backs every couple of weeks. It's been week to week," Koenig said.
The running game has been Hillman's strength the last few years with the Tigers riding backs like Joe Mercer, Jacob Burger and Caleb Zimmer. This year has been a different story as Hillman has essentially had a by-committee backfield after injuries and departures knocked Alex Cheek, Kenny Kolcan and Mason VanPamel out of the lineup.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Kolcan and VanPamel are slated to return to the lineup tonight, giving the Tigers two important offensive players against a 7-2 JoBurg team that's got a power running game of its own and has won it's last six games.
"It's very important to have them back. We were getting right down to the nitty gritty and those two guys can give everyone a break," Koenig said.
With a small backfield, Hillman has turned to Michael Klein and David Olschanski to carry the ball and they've risen to the task as Olschanski has rushed for over 300 yards in limited time.
While Hillman's offense will get a lift, the Tigers' defense will need to rise up to stop a Cardinals team with several playmakers. All-purpose player Dillion Kibby has 14 touchdowns on the year and 1743 all-purpose yards. Fullback Mitch Hardy has 802 yards on 92 carries with a dozen touchdowns and quarterback Alex Payne has also been a threat on the ground with nine scores.
"We've been playing well enough to win," Cardinals' coach John Bush said. "We're going to have to execute and run the wing-T. We've got a pretty good backfield.
Defensively, the Cardinals have also been strong. JoBurg has allowed just 128 points this season and has allowed less than 150 points in each of the last four seasons. Dylan Helms leads the Cardinals defense with 94 stops and Drake Skowronsky has 90. JoBurg has allowed just 20 points in the last four weeks.
"The last couple of weeks have been good. We held Onaway to 14 points on long runs and Pellston we held to under 100 total yards," Bush said.
Koenig is happy the way his team has been able to rebound after suffering early defeats against Marlette and Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett. Hillman has won three of its last four games, which included a second-half rally against Oscoda two weeks ago.
It's a daunting task for Hillman to stop the Cardinals, but Koenig said the Tigers can be successful if they eliminate mistakes.
"We need to hang on to the football, we need to control the clock and we can't have any of those silly mistakes that have been biting us all year," he said.