ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
In a season full of bumps and turns, the Hillsboro Trojans finally enjoyed a ride on the easy train Friday with a 33-0 homecoming win over Ellsworth at Reimer Field.
In fact, the non-league Bearcats seemed more than willing to punch the Trojans’ ticket, making key mistakes early in the game that led to a 20-0 HHS lead in less than six minutes of action.
One play into the game, Ellsworth running back Micah Steinike fumbled and Hillsboro’s Wade Weibert recovered the ball at the Bearcat 25-yard line.
Two plays later, freshman Michael Suderman skirted the left end and raced 21 yards for the score. Caleb Marsh’s extra-point attempt was wide left, but Hillsboro led 6-0 only 78 seconds from kickoff.
On their next possession at the 21-yard line, the Bearcats didn’t even get one play run successfully as quarterback Brad Barta fumbled in the backfield.
This time the consequences were even more swift as Trojan lineman Brian Thiessen scooped up the loose ball and rumbled 12 yards for a touchdown.
This time Marsh hit his mark and the Trojans were up 13-0 with their second score in 10 seconds.
On their third possession, the Bearcats held on to the ball for three plays but could not pick up a first down.
Marsh, marking his return to full play after an early-season ankle injury, grabbed the ensuing punt and streaked down the left sideline for a 51-yard score. He nailed the point-after and Hillsboro led 20-0 with 6:41 still to play in the opening quarter.
But then the well ran dry. Trojans could not score the rest of the half, even with the return of Marsh at quarterback in the second quarter. His fake-punt pass of 32 yards to Tim Funk gave the Trojans the ball at the Ellsworth 16-yard line, but time had run out during the play.
“It’s kind of a hard game to call and a hard game for kids to play when you get up 20 right at the beginning,” coach Dustin McEwen said afterward.
“I thought in the first half we lost some of our focus when you score 20 points in the first five minutes and then you turn around and don’t score the rest of the half.
“It was a matter of focus and concentration and just deciding to close the deal.”
The Trojans closed it quickly in the second half. On the first play from scrimmage, Marsh, now at running back, ducked off right tackle and broke through the Bearcat defense for a 63-yard score.
His kick banged the left upright, but Hillsboro led 26-0.
But the Bearcats continued their generous ways anyway. Six plays into their next possession, Steinike fumbled again and the Trojans recovered at the Ellsworth 41.
Marsh jitterbugged for 13 yards, Kyle Jilka carried three straight times for 24 yards and Marsh covered the last four for the score with 6:00 to go in the third quarter. His kick was good for the final margin of 33-0.
Twice the Trojan offense turned generous, losing one possession to an interception and another on a fumble.
But the Hillsboro defense was stubbornly stingy all night long.
The Bearcats lost a banged-up Barta in the second half and their top runner was at home with the flu, but it may not have mattered much. Ellsworth simply could not move the ball against the Trojans-and sometimes struggled even to execute plays.
The Bearcats managed only two yard rushing for the game on 41 carries. They did not attempt to pass, and lost four of six fumbles.
“As their coach told me after the game, our defense played real aggressively,” McEwen said. “They really came out and hit, even the secondary guys came up and laid some licks.
“I was very pleased with the way the defense played-but the defense has been playing great really all year.”
Once the game was safely tucked away at 33-0, the most interesting thing left for Trojan fans to watch in the second half was McEwen’s experimental backfield lineup that had Derek Hamm, Marsh and Jilka or Suderman in a shotgun “T” formation with the ball snapped variously to Hamm or Marsh.
“Hamm’s got this experience at quarterback, and you hate to lose that experience,” McEwen said. “He’s played well, so we tried to find a way to incorporate both of the guys.
“In some respects, I didn’t want to show (the new formation) yet, but I thought we needed to see it in a game situation and see what it looks like. I liked it.”
On the strength of his 63-yard run, Marsh finished as the game’s leading rusher with 83 yards on nine carries. He also completed four of eight passes for 69 yards and one interception.
“Marsh is definitely an added weapon to what we’ve got,” McEwen said of his senior. “But we have a lot of guys who contribute and we know we can play without him.”
Suderman added 45 rushing yards on 10 carries and Jilka had 37 yards on seven carries.
In all, the Trojans rolled up 306 yards total offense, 190 on the ground and 116 through the air.
“The second half I thought went much better,” McEwen said. “I think we’re back to having a little more offensive firepower right now.”
Coming-This Friday, the 3-2 Trojans travel to Sterling to take on the 4-1 Black Bears in a key MCAA Mid Division matchup. Game time is 7 p.m.