Facing tradition-rich Conway Springs, owners of five Class 3A state championships since 1998, the Hillsboro Trojans had the added challenge of playing without starting quarterback Spencer Brown, who was injured Tuesday night at Sedgwick.
So it wasn?t totally unexpected when the Cardinals left Hillsboro with a 35-26 regional win over the Trojans Saturday.
But just how hard Conway Springs had to work to secure the victory raised many eyebrows and made Hillsboro coach Len Coryea beam with pride.
?I was worried about this game all along,? Coryea said. ?They?re (Conway Springs) a good team, a good program and I like the way they play. They play very hard.
?But I don?t think we were intimidated?although I was afraid of that because (the Cardinals?) posture well and do all the hoopla,? he added. ?But I was really proud of our guy. They played really hard.?
Throwing seldom-used sophomore signal caller Jacob Fish into the proverbial frying pan, Hillsboro managed to generate enough offense to keep things interesting.
Coryea said Fish didn?t flounder.
?Jacob is a champ,? the coach said. ?He?s our No. 3 kid but he did well. He played with a lot of poise and that?s all I could ask for.?
Hillsboro was forced to punt on its first possession and surrendered the football to the Cardinals on the Conway Springs 44-yard line.
Facing a second-and-10 from Hillsboro?s 41-yard line three plays later, the Cardinals? Nathan Pauly was stripped of the football. Daniel Jost scooped it up and returned it 42 yards to the Trojan 17-yard line.
Fish found Jost in the south end zone four plays later on fourth-and-13 for a 20-yard touchdown strike. Following Isaac Leihy?s extra-point kick, Hills?boro led 7-0 with 5:28 left in the first quarter.
But the quick-strike Cardinal offense answered on its next drive. Beginning at its 29-yard line, Conway Springs marched 71 yards in five plays and scored when Pauly bullied his way in from three yards out with 3:56 to play in the quarter. The Cardinal point-after kick sailed wide right and Hillsboro clung to a 7-6 lead.
After Fish was picked off to end the ensuing drive on the Conway Springs 39-yard line, the Trojan defense stiffened and held on a fourth-and-3 from the Hillsboro 41 as the second quarter got under way.
That?s when Fish went to work through the air, connecting with Ishmael Morris for a 19-yard gain and two plays later, hooked up with Grant Schneider down the west sideline for a 45-yard touchdown with 9:51 to play in the half. Leihy added the kick and the Trojans led the mighty Cardinals 14-6.
Although Hillsboro attempted a 32-yard field goal at the 4:28 mark, neither team threatened the end zone as the half ended with Hillsboro nursing an eight-point lead.
But champions don?t quit, and Conway Springs illustrated it still has championship blood in its veins, taking the second-half kickoff and marching 80 yards in 11 plays. Pauly capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge with 6:47 left in the quarter.
A pass form Caleb Brill to Corey Sones on the 2-point conversion attempt successfully knotted the score at 14.
Unable to move on its next possession, Hillsboro punted to the dangerous Cardinal offense. This time, though, the Trojan defense was up to the task, forcing a third-and-7 from the Conway Springs 23.
That?s when an errant center snap intended for Brill sailed into the Trojan end zone. Senior Daniel Roble recovered the ball for a Trojan touchdown.
Although Leihy?s kick went wide left, Hillsboro regained the lead 20-14 with 2:11 left in the third quarter.
Conway Springs answered with a 65-yard in seven plays, with Pauly scooting the final 26 yards that gave the Cardinals a 21-20 lead after the PAT with 11:14 to play in the contest.
Following a three-and-out by the Trojans, Conway Springs struck quickly, engineering a five-play, 65-yard drive culminating with a 30-yard scamper from Brill as the lead swelled to 28-20 with 8:14 to play.
But Hillsboro demonstrated a never-say-die attitude with an eight-play drive that ended when Fish hooked up with Jacob Yoder, who made an acrobatic catch across the middle and juked his way 23 yards into the south end zone to cut the lead to 28-26 with 5:35 to play.
Conway Springs however, continued to batter the Trojan defense on the ground, countering with a nine-play, 78-yard drive to take a commanding 35-26 lead at the 1:41 mark, a lead they carried to the final gun.
The difference in the contest was the ground game. The Cardinals rolled up 429 yards on 62 carries while holding the Trojans? normally potent rushing attack to a paltry 22 yards on 18 carries.
?The whole key was that they wore us out on defense,? Coryea said. ?They wore us out because we couldn?t move the ball on the ground and we couldn?t compensate back.
?Had we been able to run the ball?that?s probably where we missed the other quarterback,? he added, referring to Brown. ?It gives us the other running back. But that?s football.?
Pauly led the Cardinals with 262 yards on 34 carries while Brill added 167 on 27 attempts.
Yoder concluded his career with 16 carries for just 15 yards to lead the Trojans.
Fish played admirably in his first varsity start, connecting on 15 of 24 passes for 211 yards, including three touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Conway Springs hit both of its aerial attempts resulting in nine yards.
With the loss, Hillsboro wrapped up its 2007 campaign with a 6-5 record while Conway Springs heads to sectional play with a mark of 9-2.
Eight seniors concluded their Trojan gridiron career.
?We had a great senior class,? he said. ?We?re just average kids. In fact we?re small. But we created a nice little unit.
?We?re the highest scoring team at Hillsboro since I?ve been here in 25 years,? he added. ?We had the smallest lineup we?ve had in years but we played big and never gave up.
?Even tonight when (Conway Springs) scored, we just said lets go have some fun. They have big hearts.?