By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
It started with the loss of 17 seniors off last year’s Class 4A quarterfinalist squad and even with a drop in classification, Hilldale coach Chad Kirkhart and his squad could feel the vibe of doubt surrounding them about their ability to have the kind of year they’ve had.
Yet here they are, in round-three territory for the first time in school history and in the middle of preparation for the Class 3A quarterfinal at Blanchard on Friday.
The 36-23 come-from-behind win over No. 3 Verdigris only proved what they’ve known all along, even down 20-7 and getting dominated at the line of scrimmage by a bigger Cardinals’ offensive front and a run game that had been on full throttle all season.
The Hornets held Verdigris to 59 yards in the second half after giving up 212 in the opening two quarters, and exploited a susceptible secondary to get its offense going.
“When you’re down 20-7 against the No. 3 team and having to figure out things on both sides of the ball, it’s easy to lay down,” Kirkhart said.
“But our kids have had a chip on their shoulder all year long and what happened was a tribute to them. They play for each other, care for each other and have responded like that ever since week one when no one really gave us much of a chance against Stigler. Then we get in the playoffs and they hear it again that they should just be lucky to be there.”
Quarterback Chandler Puckett and receiver Bradley Campbell both had season-highs in the aerial department. Puckett was 7-of-13 for 240 yards and two touchdowns, most of that going to Campbell (six catches, 219 yards and both TDs).
“We thought we’d be able to work the back end against their safeties and go over the top. Their cornerbacks really press. It helped spread the field for us,” Kirkhart said.
“I also think our offensive line played well the second half. I think it helped that those guys don’t play defense and their guys up front went both ways. It might have taken a physical toll on them. Plus, defensively, we simply tackled better the second half.”
Puckett saw it as a confidence shot in the arm for the passing game, even if the pass coverage wasn’t as good as they’ve seen.
“Just making as many big plays as we did,” he said. “We haven’t really thrown the ball bad all year but it hasn’t been like Friday where it was one big play after another.
“At this point of the year any team you’re playing is good so to do that against any of them boosts your confidence that you can go and do it again the next week because you’ve proven yourself capable of doing it.”
Hilldale has been to the quarterfinal round of postseason a few times in Class 4A, most recently a year ago when it beat McLain 22-12 and lost to Clinton 49-14. But the 3A field adds an extra round of play.
Now comes Blanchard, a 60-7 winner over Madill, and a spread offense that Kirkhart feels is a better match up for his defensive unit. He compared them to Stigler, which the Hornets beat 26-21 in week one and like Hilldale, remains in the 3A playoff hunt.
“They both have a quarterback and tailback that run the ball well and the quarterback throws well and has two or three receives who he can throw to. It plays better to what we do with our 3-4 which is geared toward stopping the spread.”
In that opener, the Hornets were particularly effective against the pass, snatching four of Stigler quarterback Cade Shearwood’s passes and holding him to 76 yards. Stigler had 253 total yards.
Blanchard quarterback Broke Lamle was 14-of-20 for 181 yards and two TDs and ran for another score. Braden Stringer carried eight times for 185 yards and scored twice as the Lions (10-1) amassed 575 yards, 379 on the ground.
Defensively, they are strong at the skill positions. “But it’s like anyone at this time of the year. You have to out-execute them,” Puckett said.
Kirkhart noted that going out west and leaving at least some of its fan base behind won’t be a factor.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “That chip on our shoulders has had us trying to prove something every week.”
Hilldale’s game at Blanchard on Friday will be webcast on www.i-high.com/vypethreerivers.