ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
A game of big plays and big mistakes turned against Hillsboro in a critical and dramatic moment as the Trojans’ dream of a Class 3A state championship run ended last Tuesday with a 26-20 overtime loss at Minneapolis.
Moments after the Trojan defense blocked an extra-point kick in overtime to keep the score at 26-20 and give Hillsboro an opportunity to win the game on its ensuing possession, Ross Duerksen fumbled a pitch from Trojan quarterback Dustin Jost on the first play from scrimmage.
Minneapolis won the scramble for the ball, abruptly ending the game and the season for Hillsboro.
That the Trojans were able to take the game into overtime is a credit to its “Black Shirts” defense, which pulled off an amazing goal-line stand in the waning seconds of the game.
After the Trojan offense had failed to convert a fourth-and-21 at the Minneapolis 29-yard line, the Lions took over with 6:15 left in the game and began a methodical drive that took the ball down to the Trojan 1-yard line in 11 plays.
Twice along the way, the Lions converted fourth-down plays, the second time with a dramatic 20-yard shovel pass from quarterback Ben Zuker to Jeff Mortimer that took the ball down to the 13-yard line.
Two plays later, the Lions were sitting only one yard away from a winning touchdown. Two sneaks by Zuker sandwiched a plunge by Mortimer, but Hillsboro held each time.
With the ball nudging the goal line on fourth down, Minneapolis coach Jerry Mick opted for a field goal attempt with 42 seconds left on the clock.
Kicker Branden Comfort, who had missed two extra-point attempts earlier in the game, lined up to redeem himself. But a bad snap left Comfort looking desperately for someone to pass to.
Under pressure from Hillsboro’s Layne Frick, Comfort’s pass was off the mark and Hillsboro had new life with a scant 36 seconds left in the game.
The Trojans barely avoided a safety on their one running attempt, but Duerksen did clear the goal line and Hillsboro let the clock run out to send the game into overtime.
When Hillsboro won the toss and chose to play defense first, momentum seemed to be clearly with the Trojans.
Two Minneapolis running plays put the ball once more on the one-yard line, before Hillsboro’s Ronnie Davis stuffed Mortimer for a two-yard loss. Facing fourth-and-three, Zuker ran the keeper play to the left side, then cut inside for the score.
Blocking the extra point attempt buoyed the Trojans’ hopes as the offense took the field.
“I felt good about it,” coach Dustin McEwen said. “We forced them to go four plays and we almost had people to make the tackle and stop it. (Zuker) made a great run out of it.”
The way the game started, it appeared the Trojans would have little trouble with Minneapolis, who came in with a 7-2 record.
With a strong wind at its back, Hillsboro scored on its first two possessions of the night. Phillip Terrell’s nine-yard run capped an eight play, 61-yard drive. Jost threw to Steven Chisholm for the 2-point conversion and the Trojans led 8-0 with 7:38 left in the quarter.
After stopping the Lions again on four plays, Hillsboro launched a quick 50-yard drive that ended when Jost hit tight end Adam Woods in the flat and the senior outraced the defense for a 46-yard score. Terrell was stopped on the 2-point conversion run, but Hillsboro led 14-0 with 3:48 left in the quarter.
When Ronn Coates intercepted a Zuker pass at midfield to give Hillsboro the ball once more with 1:49 still to play in the opening period, it appeared Hillsboro was on the verge of an early knockout.
But, on its second play from scrimmage, the Trojans lost the ball on a fumble by Duerksen-the first of four fumbles Hillsboro would give away during the evening. Just as significant, the first quarter ended two plays later, putting the wind in Minneapolis’s favor.
Suddenly, the Lions began to roar.
Three plays into the second period, Drew Wedel took the pitch from Zuker, skirted the right end and raced 27 yards for the touchdown. Comfort’s missed extra point made the score 14-6 with 10:27 left in the half.
This time, Hillsboro couldn’t move the ball against the wind and Woods’ punt gave Minneapolis the ball at its own 39. Once more the Lions moved down the field, scoring on a six-yard touchdown run and then a 2-point conversion run by Mortimer with 3:57 left on the clock to tie the game at 14.
Following a wind-aided touchback, Hillsboro regrouped and began one last drive before halftime. From its own 20-yard line, the Trojans drove to the Minneapolis 47 in eight plays.
Then, facing second-and-seven, the Trojans ran a play with Woods running left and looking for a receiver to throw to. But the ball slipped out of his hand and fluttered harmlessly out of bounds.
When Jost was sacked for a three-yard loss on the next play, the Trojans faced fourth-and-10 at midfield. Woods’s punt into the wind netted only 17 yards, giving Minneapolis the ball with 34 seconds left.
A keeper by Zuker moved the ball to the Lions’ 35, but with 19 seconds left, Minneapolis caught the Trojans off guard with a reverse pass from Jacob Nelson to a wide-open Zuker downfield, who raced in for the 65-yard touchdown with six seconds left in the half.
Comfort’s second miss left the score at 20-14, but the Lions had clearly grabbed the momentum heading into the locker room.
Starting the third quarter with the wind at their backs, the Trojans needed to score-given the way the game had progressed to that point.
After the Trojan defense pinned the Lions deep in their own territory to open the quarter, a punt into the wind gave Hillsboro possession at the Minneapolis 24.
On the first play from scrimmage, Duerksen took off around the left side and scored less than four minutes into the quarter. Jost was stopped on the 2-point play, leaving the game tied at 20.
When Hillsboro forced another punt on the Lions’ next possession, the Trojans threatened again when Jost and Frick connected for a 49-yard pass that gave Hillsboro the ball at the Minneapolis 33-yard line.
But, following an incomplete pass, Duerksen fumbled and Nick Johnson recovered the ball to end the threat and give the Lions a first down at their 23-yard line.
Three plays later, Minneapolis punted into the wind once more. This time the ball slipped out of the hands of Hillsboro speedster Alan Yoder and the Lions recovered at their own 42.
Hillsboro’s defense held once more as the third quarter ended. The Trojans then put together one last drive, this time battling the wind.
Hillsboro drove to the Lions’ 26-yard line, but, after Jost was sacked two plays later, Minneapolis forced an incomplete pass on fourth down and took over at their own 39. Their ensuing drive then ended at the Trojan goal line.
“We just made too many mistakes tonight,” McEwen said.
“We put the ball on the ground too many times, and we had the opportunity to hit some receivers and didn’t. The coaches are to blame as well.”
McEwen credited the Lions’ team speed for their success on offense and their ability to capitalize on the Trojans’ fumbles.
“That’s a credit to their defense and the number of people who got to the ball and how quickly they got to the ball,” he said.
Fighting the disappointment of a heart-breaking loss, McEwen said he thanked his seniors for a great season and career when they huddled for some post-game words.
“During the time they’ve been in school, they’ve gone 9-1, 9-2, 7-3 and now 9-1 again,” he said. “They’ve won a lot of ball games.”