ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Hillsboro defenders used three fourth-quarter turnovers to shut the door on its 32-21 comeback victory against Sacred Heart, but a few suggestions from a wiley offensive lineman helped lay the foundation for the Trojans’ sectional championship Friday in Salina.
The win gave Hillsboro an unprecedented third state playoff victory in a single season and put them in the semifinals against Garden Plain on Friday night.
Trailing 14-6 at intermission after a Sacred Heart touchdown in the final seconds of the first half, Hillsboro needed to establish a ground attack after picking up only 59 yards in the first half.
“Darren Enns told us at halftime that there were a couple of plays that would work,” coach Len Coryea said about his savvy senior tackle. “We made some adjustments.”
And those adjustments worked. The Trojans ran for 183 yards in the second half and took control of a game that was clearly in Sacred Heart’s hands early in the contest.
The Knights took the opening kickoff and promptly marched 69 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown. Standout quarterback Dane Simoneau slipped in from one yard out for a 7-0 lead only four minutes into the contest.
When the Knights’ defense overwhelmed the Trojans into a minus-14 yards on Hillsboro’s opening possession, the game seemed headed for an ugly finish.
But the Trojans slowly reestablished themselves with the help of a couple of first-half turnovers by Sacred Heart.
The first one came in the early minutes of the second quarter. The Knights appeared to be on their way to a second score after moving from their own 29-yard line to the Trojan 6 in seven plays.
But Spencer Brown intercepted a Simoneau pass that killed the drive five yards from pay dirt.
The play appeared to be a turning point for Hillsboro. With Brown at the controls, the Trojans moved from their own 5-yard line to the 50-yard line in 12 plays. But the drive stalled there, and the Trojans were forced to punt.
But Jacob Yoder’s kick glanced off a Sacred Heart player and the Trojans recovered the football at the Knights’ 33-yard line.
Seven plays later, Brown was in the end zone after a one-yard run. The extra-point-kick attempt imploded, but Hillsboro was within a point at 7-6 with 2:01 left in the half.
That turned out to be just enough time for Simoneau to get his team another score before intermission.
With 15 seconds left and his team on the Trojan 40, the Sacred Heart senior connected with wide receiver Dave Faeber for a pass that put the Knights on the 1-yard line with 6 seconds remaining. Simoneau scored on the next play for the 14-6 halftime lead.
The Trojans came out aggressively in the third quarter. After the defense forced a three-and-out, the offense moved from its own 28-yard line to the 47 in four running plays.
On third-and-two, Yoder then burst through the middle of the defense for a 54-yard touchdown dash. He then scored the 2-point conversion on the same play that had given Hillsboro its overtime victory against Cheney a week earlier.
Suddenly, the game was tied at 14 with 7:34 left in the quarter.
But Sacred Heart didn’t roll over. After the two teams traded possessions, the Knights took over at the Trojan 15.
From there, Simoneau took the game into his own hands, running three straight times for 33 yards, then connecting with Cameron Weis for a 41-yard pass that put the football on the Trojan 11.
After a short run by Weis, Simoneau scored from nine yards out, giving Sacred Heart a 21-14 lead with 1:03 left in the third quarter.
Knight fans had barely settled into their seats when Hillsboro struck back. After Yoder returned the kickoff to the Sacred Heart 44, Michael Suderman broke a 43-yard run on Hillsboro’s first play from scrimmage and Brown was in the end zone on the next play.
Brown’s 2-point pass was batted down, leaving Hillsboro a point behind at 21-20 with 31 seconds left in the quarter. That kind of play can come back to a haunt a team at the end of a game, but not on this night.
After stopping the Knights on three unsuccessful pass attempts, Hillsboro started what turned out to be a remarkable fourth quarter with the ball at its 40-yard line.
The Trojans combined a 32-yard pass between Brown and Yoder with five running plays to take the lead for good. Suderman capped the drive with a two-yard burst with 9:19 left in the game.
Yoder caught Brown’s short pass on a 2-point conversion attempt, but was stopped short of the goal line to keep the score at 26-20.
Still vulnerable, the Trojans needed a defensive stop. They got a dramatic one on the second play of Sacred Heart’s next possession when Simoneau had the ball stripped and Adam Dirks recovered it at the Knight 32.
“I’m just happy I could get out there and support the team and actually be part of the team,” said the senior linebacker and co-captain who was playing his first game after a leg injury sidelined him four weeks ago.
“It was just a huge team effort, and (the recovery) was just one of the things that tipped the scales and definitely got our momentum going for the win.”
With the ball again in their hands, the Trojans ate up more than 6 minutes on their ensuing possession before running out of downs at the Sacred Heart 5-yard line.
After the Knights picked up one first down on a pass from Simoneau to Cole Williams, the Trojan rush forced Simoneau into an intentional-grounding penalty, then Josh Kenney sacked him on the next play for a 21-yard loss to the 1-yard line.
The Knights needed a miracle, and opted for a hook-and-ladder play that had gone for big yards against Hoisington the previous game.
Simoneau threw a short pass to Aaron Wedel near the 7-yard line, but when Wedel attempted to lateral the ball to running back Emmanuel Kilat, Brown darted between the two players, snatched the ball in mid-flight and raced into the end-zone for the victory-clinching score with 1:04 left in the contest.
Sophomore Daniel Jost put the exclamation point on the effort by intercepting one last Simoneau pass, giving Hillsboro the chance to run out the final 49 seconds of game.
“It just feels good,” Coryea said as Trojan fans celebrated with the players afterward. “I’m so happy right now. I don’t know what to say.
“Talk to me again tomorrow or on Sunday when I come down again and touch this planet.”
After a slow first half, Hillsboro finished with 242 rushing yards on 46 carries. Suderman finished with 136 yards on 22 attempts and Yoder added 119 on 15 carries.
Brown added 93 yards through the air on 11-for-17 passing. Troy Frick and Lucas Hamm each had three receptions.
Even though Simoneau showed flashes of brilliance, the Trojans forced him into one of his worst performances of the season. He finished with 140 yards through the air, but completed only eight of 23 passes and threw three interceptions.
“He’s good,” Coryea said. “But we got him moving, and that’s what happens.”
Hamm paced Hillsboro’s defense with eight solo tackles and nine assists from his linebacker spot.
Coming-With the victory, Hillsboro (9-3) returns to the state semifinals for the first time in 20 years.
To become the first team in school history to make the finals, the Trojans will need to defeat Garden Plain (11-1), a 28-14 winner over previously unbeaten Scott City on Saturday.
The Trojans will have the advantage of playing in front of their hometown fans. Kickoff at Reimer Field is set for 7 p.m.