By Tommy Cobb
Hilldale quarterback Chandler Puckett couldn’t imagine being in any better position than he found himself in Friday night’s season opener against Stigler. The Hornets were tied with less that two minutes remaining.
Puckett passed for 240 yards and four touchdowns including the game winner with 23 seconds left as Hilldale defeated Stigler, 36-30, at Hornet Field.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than in a tied game with two minutes left,” Puckett said. “I had no doubt that we could do it.”
Puckett had every reason to be confident although the Hornets were less than impressive at times. Turnovers, penalties and miscues at inopportune times left coach Chad Kirhart knowing his team still has a lot to work on.
“There’s a lot of mistakes that are just first game issues,” Kirkhart said. “But some of our mistakes were more than that. I don’t know if we came in overconfident or what. All you can say is it’s a ‘W’ and we’ll take it.”
After dominating the second quarter to take an 18-9 halftime lead, Hilldale watched as Stigler rallied to make it a see-saw affair that wound up a 30-30 game after a Seth Sandlin to Austan Drewry scoring pass with 1:53 left. Stigler had a chance to take the lead but the PAT sailed wide right.
“I thought that was a huge momentum switch,” said Stigler head coach Chris Risenhoover. “If we make that we’re now ahead and little more fired up. Instead, we’re tied and looking at the possibility of going into overtime and suffering more cramps.”
Hilldale moved the ball deep in Stigler territory. Although Puckett had kicked a 42-yard field goal earlier in the game, miscues on extra point attempts were reason for concern.
“All of that crossed our minds,” Kirkhart said. “We had three timeouts and two minutes so we had plenty of time. I just knew we needed to score. We had struggled on our last two PATs. Fortunately we were able to punch it in.”
However in a game that had plenty of strange plays, Hilldale was unable to celebrate until Matt Bargsten intercepted his third pass of the night to end Stigler’s final drive.
“We played hard enough to be in the game and deserved a chance to win,” Risenhoover said. “Hilldale is a little further along up front than we are. We couldn’t get to the perimeter and they could.”
Lightning struck quick for Stigler. Hilldale’s Bradley Campbell slipped while fielding the opening kickoff and was downed at the Hornet 1. Then Puckett was sacked for a safety. On Stigler’s first offensive play, Sandlin found Jake Henson wide open for a 49-yard scoring pass that gave the Panthers a 9-0 lead with just 26 seconds played in the opening quarter.
Then there were the turnovers, a fumble and an interception deep in Stigler territory that thwarted Hornet drives. A fumble early in the third quarter not only stopped a drive but was picked up by Ty Mitchell and returned 47 yards to cut the lead to 18-16.
Stigler regained the lead, 24-18, before Hilldale rallied on touchdown passes from Puckett to Bradley and Hunter Olsen to take a 30-24 lead with 6:11 remaining.