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A championship at stake

Hillman, Cedarville meet again for regional championship

News File Photo Hillman running back Gunner Mellingen (22) carries the ball during a pre-regional eight-player football game against Marion last Friday at Hillman High School. The Tigers will host Cedarville tonight with a regional championship on the line.

For the past seven years, Hillman and Cedarville have developed an intense rivalry.

The Tigers and Trojans have done battle each of the last seven years and have played in some of the most important games of the season.

The rivalry began in 2012 on the basketball court when the teams exchanged blows in a double overtime thriller, with Cedarville coming away with a 92-85 victory.

That meeting was just the beginning.

Over the past seven years, Hillman and Cedarville have played nine times on the basketball court, but just once on the football field. Two of those meetings–both on the hardwood–came with a regional championship on the line and Cedarville won them both.

Cedarville leads the series 6-4 in games played during that stretch and tonight, the two teams will once again meet with a championship on the line–only this time it will be on the football field.

Tonight’s meeting in an eight-player Division 2 regional final marks just time the two teams have played on the gridiron. The Tigers are hoping this year’s game goes much better than last year’s pre-regional matchup where Hillman was embarrassed on its home field by the Trojans, 44-6.

“I think our kids know that they have to bring it up another level. Cedarville came in last year and kind of demoralized us really. Their intensity level was way higher, so we know that’s something that we have to match this year and I think the kids are ready for it,” Hillman head coach Cody Allen said. “It’s going to take a full team effort through four quarters of football. Our team has really come together and any of our guys can hurt you on any given night and I think that’s an advantage for us.”

As miserable as last year’s defeat was for Hillman, the Tigers learned a lot from the loss.

Hillman turned the ball over seven times in last year’s loss and didn’t come out with the energy it needed on its home field. The result was the Tigers having an offseason to think about what they needed to do better.

This may have been a blessing and just the wake up call the Tigers needed. Hillman rallied to win eight games for the second straight year and run its coveted playoff streak to 14 in a row.

The Tigers won their first playoff game since making the switch to eight-player football and looked dominant doing so as they defeated Marion 28-6 last week to advance to their first ever regional championship game.

“Ball security is going to be huge. Taking care of the football, that hurt us last year so ball security and matching their physicality is going to be key,” Allen said. “We’re still excited. The excitement has lasted all week and just the chance to play for a regional final at home is a big time opportunity. It would be the first time ever the football program would be able to hoist a regional championship if we’re able to win. We never won a district championship in a 11-Man so it’s a big opportunity and it’s something we’re really looking forward to.”

Cedarville enters tonight’s game with a 6-4 record and their five regular season wins were just enough to give them their 16th consecutive playoff birth. But the Trojans are not an ordinary four loss team.

Three of Cedarville’s four losses came against playoff teams and two of their regular season opponents will also be playing for a regional championship.

Hillman knows that at this point records mean nothing, because the Trojans entered last year’s playoff matchup with a 5-4 record and the end result wasn’t pretty for the team with the better record.

The Trojans are a big, physical team and have capable playmakers all over the field. Cedarville is led by junior running back Grant Fountain who ran for 281 yards and four touchdowns in last week’s 46-26 victory over Posen.

Fountain is the quicker of the two Trojan backs, with Josh Newell being the power back and is tough to bring down as he also added a touchdown and 66 yards rushing in the win over Posen.

Hillman will also need to contain senior quarterback Trey Paquin as the Trojans can hurt their opponents on the ground and through the air. Paquin has two senior receivers that he likes to get involved in Thomas Bohn and Jarrett St. Onge.

“We’re expecting a lot of the same as last year. They run the I-Formation and power football. (Grant) Fountain is a very tough runner so obviously the focus is going to be bringing him down and limiting their big plays,” Allen said.

As talented as Cedarville is, the Tigers have shortage of talent either and Hillman will be as close to 100% as it has been all season.

Matt Armon will return this week and will provide more depth on the defensive side of the football. Gunner Mellingen was banged up again last week, but is ready to go and carry another big work load wherever he lines up. Caleb Sanders and Sean Henigan are both healthy and determined to make plays, but Hillman’s success will likely continue to ride on the do-it-all ability of senior quarterback Nash Steinke who has been the leader for the Tigers this season.

“We have the same mentality coming into this game as we did last week and we have all season. We’ve practiced in challenging weather conditions all week and we worked on throwing the ball just like we do every day,” Allen said. “We like to keep an open playbook and Nash can hurt you with his arm and his feet. He’s definitely going to be a big part of what we do Friday night.”

Steinke made playing on a snow-covered Hillman football field look like an easy task last week as he threw for three touchdowns and had no problem at all throwing the football in the below average conditions.

It is likely the weather will not be favorable tonight with a chance of more snow and a temperature below freezing, but Steinke and the Tigers are ready for the challenge.

“The mindset is just to play similar to what we did last week and leave it all out on the field which is going to be our last home game,” Steinke said. “So many guys have stepped up on this team all season and Friday night should be no different. We’re excited and we’re confident coming in. To do something that’s never been done before and win a regional title for the football program is just added motivation and we’re ready for the challenge.”

To say this game means a lot to Hillman is an understatement. Tonight’s game will be Hillman’s final home game of the season and a win would give Hillman its first regional championship in program history as well as a new record for wins in a season. The Tigers are focused and looking to rewrite history, with the winner of this game advancing to the Division 2 eight-player state semifinals next week against either Pickford or Powers North Central.

“Playing in front of a home crowd is always great. We get tremendous community support, whether we’re traveling or home,” Allen said. “Just the opportunity for these guys to play in front of a home crowd for the chance to win a regional championship for the first time ever and set a school record for wins and just have one of the best seasons in program history would really mean a lot.”