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Something to prove

Hillman hoping for better results in playoff opener

News File Photo Hillman senior running back Caleb Sanders (30) looks to get away from the pack while carrying the ball during a game against Pellston at Hillman High School. Sanders and the Tigers will host Marion in an eight-player playoff game Friday night.

The Hillman football team couldn’t have asked for much more in its first two seasons of eight-player football.

For the second consecutive season, the Tigers finished the regular season 8-1 and Hillman is now preparing to host its second playoff game in as many years, all while running its coveted playoff streak to 14 years in a row.

This time around, the Tigers are determined to have better results.

Last year, home field advantage wasn’t enough as Hillman was on the receiving end of a 44-6 first round pre-regional loss to Cedarville.

Not only do the Tigers have another year of the eight-player experience under their belt, but Hillman have a handful of players are back in the same spot they were last year and many of the Tigers remember last year’s loss.

This year, Hillman is determined to defend its home field.

“Hosting a playoff game is an amazing feeling. We always get great support from the community and it gives us a little extra motivation to put on a good show,” Hillman coach Cody Allen said. “Continuing the streak is special, but over the last 14 years, we’ve only managed to win two playoff games and our emphasis this week has been trying to change that narrative.”

With its 8-1 regular season record, Hillman secured a No. 1 seed against No. 4 seed Marion (6-3) tonight.

Hillman made things look easy at times this season, but the season has been anything but easy. The Tigers were battle tested all year and suffered injuries to key players, but had several players step up to keep the train moving.

“We battled adversity a lot this season. We were banged up all season and dealt with a lot of injuries on both sides of the ball,” Hillman coach Cody Allen said. “Our mentality has always been next man up and that was no different this year. I’m proud of the kids for their effort this season, we’re getting healthier and I think we’re hitting our stride at the right time.”

One of the Tigers’ biggest blows came when they lost Isaac Morrison to a season-ending injury just three games into the season. Morrison finished as Hillman’s second leading receiver on the team with 234 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches.

For several games, the team was also without both running backs, Gunner Mellingen and Caleb Sanders.

Despite being down three starters, quarterback Nash Steinke did his part, stepping up to lead the Tigers. Along with Steinke, Sean Henigan filled a starting role at a running back position. Steinke and Henigan finished with more than 1,000 yards rushing combined on the season and 18 touchdowns.

Steinke finished as Hillman’s leading rusher with 610 yards and four touchdowns. Steinke also threw for 828 yards and six touchdowns and caught a touchdown.

Henigan ran for 397 yards and five scores, while adding 125 yards in the air and finishing with a receiving touchdown and passing touchdown.

The two filled a major offensive void and along with a steady defense, Hillman never missed a beat.

As important as the offensive consistency was all season long for Hillman, its defensive effort was even stronger led by a strong defensive front in leading tackler Dawson Ableidinger, Kody Kalanquin and Matt Armon. Hillman’s big three up front along with their options at linebacker and in the secondary with Henigan, Mellingen, Steinke, Sanders, Zach Kazyaka, Nick Zimmer and Thomas Williams provides Hillman with plenty of options and depth on the defensive side of the ball.

On Friday, the Tigers will once again need a complete effort when they host Marion, who is also riding a four-game winning streak entering Friday’s game. Hillman will be as close to full strength as it has been all year with Sanders healthy and the reigning all-area 8-Man Player of the Year–Mellingen–ready to go for this first round matchup.

“We’re closer to full strength. We’re getting healthier and we just need to do what we’ve been doing all season,” Allen said. “Our motto all season has been next man up and despite being without Gunner (Mellingen) and Caleb (Sanders) at times throughout the year, Nash (Steinke) did a great job stepping up and being a leader and Sean (Henigan) really stepped up as well. A lot of credit goes to our offensive and defensive line and everyone has done a great job stepping up.”

The two teams appear to be playing their best football at the right time as the Tigers have outscored their opponents 186-52 over the last four games and Marion has outscored its opponents 106-30 over its past four games.

The Tigers feel they are better prepared this time around having been tested in the regular teams, going 2-1 in the regular season against teams who made the playoffs. Marion was unable to beat a playoff team, going 0-3 against those teams and being outscored 90-22 in those three games.

“We expect the weather to be challenging, but we’re used to it. It’s not going to affect our game plan, we’re just going to work hard and do what we do,” Allen said. “We know Marion runs the ball well and their line blocks well. We’ll have to keep on eye on their backfield and try to limit them. We’re excited and looking forward to the challenge.”

The winner of Friday’s game will advance to a regional championship game against the winner of Posen and Cedarville.