By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Hilldale has seen good skill position players this year. And the Hornets have handled them well on their way to an 8-2 campaign.
Their first-round opponent in the Class 3A playoffs may have a little more than they’ve seen, but the 10th-ranked Hornets insist they’ll be able to handle that as well when the Spiro Bulldogs visit Hornet Field at 7:30 tonight for the first of as many as five do-or-die kickoffs.
“Their skill guys are a lot better than anyone we’ve played as a group,” said safety Matt Bargsten. “Containing their quarterback will be a key thing for us.”
McKinley Whitfield (1,113 yards rushing, 992 passing), took over at quarterback for the Bulldogs, who are also 8-2, after switching spots this summer with receiver Trevon Mitchum. Good size up front allows him to roam and produce.
“He’ll get out of the pocket and extend the play,” said Hornets cornerback Dakota Holmes. “Everyone has got to do their job, watch their man and not get burned deep.”
Mitchem is the Bulldogs’ top receiver but they mix the targets well between Mitchem, Malik Walker and others.
The skill guys essentially flip when the reverse units are on the field. While Bradley Campbell has been the top target for quarterback Chandler Puckett, amassing 1,126 yards and 15 TDs on 59 catches, Holmes has been an alternative target with 22 catches for 255 yards. He hasn’t topped his four-catch, 60-yard effort in the season opener, but can’t be overlooked. Just like Bargsten, who had his second two-catch game against Sequoyah.
“We’re pretty evenly matched skill-wise so it’s just a question of finding a way to get open when we’ve got the ball,” he said.
Perhaps a bigger challenge for Hilldale is staying focused. The Hornets are looking to equal or surpass three playoff rounds turned in by last year’s team which has 18 of this year’s seniors. They opened with a 35-0 victory against Checotah, which has several of the key pieces in place that beat Spiro 43-28 to win the 3A-8 title a week ago.
Combine those intangibles with the comparative momentum patterns of the two teams and it would be easy to slip into that kind of trap. Spiro had an eight-game win streak stopped by the Wildcats last week and Hilldale has stormed back from a 42-41 loss to Locust Grove that decided the 3A-7 title to outscore four opponents by a combined 177-42.
“With the seed we have we’re obviously not going to start against a first-place team, but their record is the same as ours,” Campbell said. “We’ve got to approach every game like it’s for state. Maybe a couple of us get to the next level and for the rest of us, there’s the realization that any game could be your last.
“So for us seniors, when we leave, we don’t need to leave with any regrets.”
The winner will travel to meet the winner between Metro Christian and Okmulgee next week.