ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
After four frustrating weeks of being overmatched because they were under-equipped, the Hillsboro Trojans sent a message-to themselves, if nobody else-that the 2004 season isn’t a lost cause just yet.
Playing with growing confidence as the game progressed, Hillsboro asserted itself in the second half and nailed down a convincing 21-0 homecoming win over Nickerson Friday at Reimer Field.
“I darn near wanted to cry,” first-year coach Len Coryea half-joked afterward. “It was a big win-it was big for all of us because our morale was on edge.”
What changed? The opponent, for one thing. Nickerson came into the game with a 1-4 record, just like the Trojans. But they were a physically large team on the line, and had shown signs of significant improvement from a year ago.
A key difference for Hillsboro could be summed up in two words: Daniel Deckert.
The Trojans’ all-league wide receiver and defensive back made his return on offense after missing the last three games because of an ankle injury.
Although his game stats were relatively modest-four catches for 56 yards-his presence on the field gave the Trojans an incalculable boost, both physically and psychologically.
The Deckert Difference became evident on Hillsboro’s first possession, when the senior reached up and made a big-time, one-handed grab of a Derek Hamm pass for a 15-yard gain on a third-and-7 play.
Hillsboro didn’t score on the possession, but the message was clear: Hillsboro now had a key weapon back in its arsenal-and, more important, his teammates knew it.
“I think you could see with Derek Hamm’s throwing tonight, the confidence level went way up,” Coryea said. “You’ve got a guy who can catch a ball. (Deckert) made a great, critical catch.
“As I told Deckert before, his name should be on this field next year for Tabor College. I really hope he realizes that he’s there with the best of them right now.”
Even with Deckert’s return, it took Hillsboro a while to find its stride. At times in the first quarter, the game looked like what you’d expect from a pair of 1-4 teams: flags, fumbles and general futility on offense.
That changed as the first quarter ended.
After the defense had stopped a 12-play Panther drive at the Trojan 21, Hillsboro overcame two illegal-procedure and one delay-of-game penalties to piece together one of its best drives of the season-79 yards in 12 plays.
Derek Hamm crossed the goal line on a one-yard sneak with 8:34 left in the half. Tyler Kaufman missed the extra-point kick, but Hillsboro enjoyed a lead for the first time since Sept. 3, 6-0.
The Trojans nearly extended that lead right before halftime. After getting a favorable roll on a Nickerson punt, Hillsboro started at the Panther 47-yard line and marched to the 10 in eight plays.
Out of timeouts and with the final seconds ticking away, Kaufman got off a 27-yard field-goal attempt. But the kick missed the mark and Hillsboro took its 6-0 lead into the intermission.
The Trojans carried its momentum into the third quarter, taking the kickoff and driving 65 yards in 13 plays. Lucas Hamm, who ran all night like a raging bull, broke through the Panther defense from three yards out to put Hillsboro ahead 12-0 at the 5:22 mark.
Derek Hamm then found Deckert in the end zone for the 2-point conversion and a 14-0 lead.
The Trojans put together one more scoring drive. Starting at the the Nickerson 45 in the final seconds of the third quarter, Hillsboro rode the legs of Lucas Hamm and Tim Funk to its third touchdown with 8:17 left in the fourth quarter.
Hamm, who carried six times during the drive, crossed into the end zone from one yard out, and Kaufman nailed his kick to bump the lead to the final 21-0 margin.
One reason Deckert’s pass-catching stats weren’t more impressive is that the Trojans finally established a reliable running game.
“We had some pass plays we went over at halftime we thought would work on their defense to capitalize on Dan being there,” Coryea said. “But we didn’t do it because I said as long as we can run the ball, the clock is my ally. If we can get another score, the clock becomes even more of an ally.
“I didn’t want to throw it up and have it backfire on us.”
Hillsboro rolled up a season-high 181 rushing yards on 49 carries. Lucas Hamm became the first Trojan back this season to break the 100-yard barrier, finishing with 112 on 28 carries. Funk added 66 yards on 14 carries.
“I had two backs running their hearts out tonight,” Coryea said. “We played with intensity. The line finally got some motion going with it.”
When the Trojans did throw the ball, Derek Hamm was efficient, completing seven of 10 attempts for 92 yards.
“Derek Hamm did a great job tonight,” Coryea said. “But who didn’t? Everybody looks good when you win. But they played well.”
The ability of the Trojan offense to sustain drives kept the Panther offense off the field and ultimately off the scoreboard. Hillsboro finished with a season-high 14 first downs while Nickerson managed only four. The Panthers were limited to 55 rushing yards on 28 carries.
“The key there was not allowing them to get into that real power-run game that they’ve been doing to people,” He said. “They line up those big boys and push, push, push. We put Kurtis Shaw in there and put Wade (Weibert) on the nose and we just kind of worked it.
“I thought Dennis (Boldt, assistant coach) had a great defensive plan there.”
Coryea said his team prepared for this game with a good week of practice.
“We went out and practiced Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday just on fundamentals-and just practiced hard,” he said.
“And we had more injuries this week (in practice) than we had all year-and we still just keep going.”
Coming-Hillsboro (2-4 overall, 1-3 in the league) completes Central Division play and begins district play on Friday at Hesston.
The Swathers (4-2, 2-2) are coming off a 14-0 loss to Smoky Valley, who defeated the Trojans in late September, 35-7.
Game time is 7 p.m.