Hillman rallies to defeat Sacred Heart Academy in season opener

News Photo by Jonny Zawacki Hillman defensive back Nash Steinke (24) tackles Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart Academy receiver Brendan Zeien (9) at the goal line during the second quarter of an eight-player football game on Friday at Hillman High School.

HILLMAN — Friday’s season opener featured a whirlwind of emotions for Hillman head coach Cody Allen and his football team.

Allen made his coaching debut and the Tigers got a taste of their first eight-player action.

Hillman received a rude awakening early, but remained poised throughout the night and erased a 19-point deficit by scoring 28 unanswered points and held onto defeat Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart Academy by a final score of 34-27.

“It’s a great feeling. The kids worked hard for it. Credit to Sacred Heart, they are a heck of a team and it was a great game,” Allen said. “I’m happy everyone is healthy and I just really couldn’t be happier right now.”

It took nearly an entire half for Hillman to find its rhythm offensively, but the defense was sharp early on and kept the Tigers in the game.

Hillman quarterback Kory Henigan was intercepted on the opening drive by Irish defender Evan Chomchai who took the ball to the Tigers’ 22 yard line.

Sacred Heart picked up a first down and got inside the five, but the Tigers shut the door with a stand at the goal line.

The two teams exchanged possessions as the Irish kept the ball inside Hillman territory in the early stages of the game.

Three plays after forcing another turnover on downs deep in its own territory, Hillman gave the ball right back to the Irish as Henigan was picked off for the second time by Chomchai who took the ball to the seven yard line.

Sacred Heart cashed in this time as Chomchai powered his way into the end zone from four yards out to give the Irish a 6-0 lead late in the first quarter.

Hillman was forced to punt on its first three possessions of the second quarter and could get little going offensively.

The Irish found their stride throughout the second quarter, especially through the air. Quarterback Ben Ruggles threw a pair of second quarter touchdowns, the first going to Brendan Zeien and the other coming with 6:35 to play in the half as he hooked up with Austin Lobsinger for a 24 yard pitch and catch to give Sacred Heart a commanding 19-0 lead.

Gage Steinke gave the home team a boost it desperately needed as he stepped in front a pass from Ruggles, intercepting the ball with just over three minutes left in the half and Hillman took over at its own 30 yard line.

The Tigers were again forced to punt, but quickly got the ball back with 20 seconds left.

Henigan took a shot late in the half and receiver Gunner Mellingen outran an Irish defender and came down with the ball in the back of the end zone while being interfered with to give Hillman its first points of the game with three seconds to play in the half.

The Tigers trailed 19-8 at the break.

“I just kept telling the kids to keep their heads up. Myself and the coaching staff know that these kids have a lot in them and we just needed to find a way to bring it out. It came together at the end of the second quarter and we know Gunner has good speed. He’s one of the fastest kids in the area so we threw one up and gave him a chance at the end of the half,” Allen said. “We just told them to come out hard in the second half. This team has a lot of heart and they play together well as a team. We made a few adjustments to try and shut down their option game and once we shut that down we did well.”

Hillman was able to clamp down defensively and cut deeper into the lead midway through the third quarter when Henigan hit a wide open Mellingen along the sidelines who raced 53 yards for a score to bring the Tigers to within five heading into the fourth quarter.

Hillman carried the momentum into the final quarter and took a lead just over a minute into the quarter when Caleb Sanders scampered in from 24 yards out to put the Tigers on top 22-19. Sanders finished the game with 93 yards on 26 carries and the lone score.

Sacred Heart fumbled on its first play from scrimmage in the fourth and the Tigers capitalized after a fourth down pass interference call was made against the Irish. On the next play, Steinke took a handoff seven yards and dove to the pylon for a score to extend Hillman’s lead to 28-19 with 5:44 to play.

The Irish wasted no time responding as Patrick Ervin took the ensuing kickoff 84 yards to the house and Sacred Heart converted the two point try to cut the lead to 28-27 with 5:30 left.

Hillman faced a fourth down and 18 deep in its own end, but decided to roll the dice and it paid off as Sanders faked the punt and raced 24 yards for a first down to keep the drive alive.

Two plays later, Henigan scored a touchdown from 24 yards out to put Hillman on top 34-27 with 3:22 remaining. Henigan fished the game 6-for-12 passing for 119 yards with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions.

The Tigers squibbed the kickoff and it bounced off an Irish player and Hillman recovered and chewed some more clock before punting the ball away with 1:19 left.

Sacred Heart ran just one play up to that point as the Tigers held the ball for more than 10 minutes.

The Irish had one more chance down seven with just over a minute to play and needing to go 80 yards for a score.

Sacred Heart converted a fourth and one to keep their hopes alive and seconds later converted a fourth and 10 as Chomchai was brought into play quarterback late and scrambled for 24 yards to get the ball into Tiger territory with under 20 seconds left.

The Irish took a few chances late, but Chomchai overthrew his intended receiver on fourth and one with six seconds left as Hillman was able to hang on for the win.

“I just told the kids to keep grinding. We’ve got to have grit in these situations and I thought we did that well tonight,” Allen said. “I’m ecstatic and a lot of credit goes to my coaching staff because we all do so much to get the kids prepared and tonight everyone did a great job.”

Hillman (1-0) will host Atlanta (0-1) in Week 2 as the North Star League teams rekindle an old rivalry.