Physically undersized against the Nickerson Panthers, the Hillsboro football team made big plays when it counted most to claim a 35-28 victory Friday at Nickerson.
For the second week in a row, the Trojans saw a substantial lead shrivel in the fourth quarter?and for the second week in a row, the Trojans dug deep to save victory from the jaws of what would have been an agonizing loss.
?Those guys played hard the entire game,? coach Lance Sawyer said. ?We get outweighed by 100 pounds on the line, and the guys kept fighting.?
When Hillsboro?s Jakob Hanschu, stepping in at quarterback just long enough for starter Jesse Brown to catch his breath, connected with Justus Hilliard in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Trojans seemed to have victory secured with a 35-14 lead.
But Nickerson, led by sophomore running back Jordan Lehman, shredded a weary Trojan defense for two touchdowns within five minutes to pull to within seven points at 35-28 with 6:51 to go.
After the Trojans went three-and-out, thanks to two incomplete passes and one completion for a loss, Nickerson regained possession at its own 22-yard line with 4:08 left. The Panthers promptly picked up where they left off?grinding out yardage.
With momentum building, Nickerson picked up a first down at the Trojan 24 with 1:48 to play. But the Trojans held Nickerson to four yards on three running plays, setting up a fourth-and-6 at the 20.
The Panthers put the ball in the air, but defenders Hanschu and Evan Ollen?burger prevented the reception near the 5-yard line, killing the threat.
?That was huge for us, especially after they ran the ball down our throat two times in a row,? Sawyer said. ?We finally got a stop.?
The Trojans might not have been in a position to pull out the fourth-quarter thriller if not for an outstanding goal-line stand right before halftime.
With 6 minutes left, Nickerson drove from its own 49 to the Trojan 1-yard line in nine plays and less than 1 minute on the clock. After Hillsboro stopped Lehman for a rare loss, the Panthers faced fourth-and-goal at the 5.
Nickerson decided to throw the ball, and Bryon Young caught quarterback Braden Stewart?s pass along the Nickerson sideline?but the Trojans stopped him 1 yard short of the end zone with 44 seconds left.
?I thought they were in, frankly,? Sawyer said. ?But our kids sucked it up and fought hard. I thought it was huge just to keep us with that lead.?
Buoyed by that turn of events, the Trojans took the second-half kickoff and scored in three plays: a 53-yard sprint by running back Preston Nelson to the Nickerson 20, followed by a one-yard run by Hanschu and a 19-yard scoring strike from Brown to Hanschu.
The score gave Hillsboro a 14-point swing and a 28-14 lead in less than 3 minutes of playing time.
Hillsboro led 21-14 at halftime, with the Trojans scoring on an 8-yard run by Hilliard one play after Brown and Ollen?burger connected for a 53-yard pass. The Trojan twosome also combined for scoring passes of 39 and 21 yards.
The win improved Hills?boro?s season record to 2-1 while Nickerson fell to 0-3.
Coming?Hillsboro will have its hands full Friday when undefeated Hesston comes to Joel H. Wiens Stadium for a 7 p.m. game.
The Swathers have won their first three games by an average score of 45-13, including a 62-6 win over Nickerson.
?We are miles ahead of where we were (at the start of the season),? coach Lance Sawyer said. ?We?ve got a lot of kids believing we can win now, and I think this team believes they can be a really good team.?