By Craig Ladd
Flashback to the season-opener last season at Columbia Central.
Final score: Columbia Central 40, Hillwood 0.
In that loss, quarterback Hale Page passed for only 97 yards and no touchdowns.
The ground game produced minus-12 yards on 25 carries. Wide receiver Kyle Carder was the leading rusher with a paltry 19 yards.
Wideout Eric Kinnard managed only three receptions for 36 yards.
The Hilltoppers finished with a pedestrian 148 yards of total offense.
Back to reality … the 2018 season-opener at Hillwood.
Final score: Columbia Central 49, Hillwood 41.
Page passed for 295 yards and three TDs.
The Toppers churned out 150 yards rushing led by running back Avery Bass with 10 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Kinnard snared 10 passes for 209 yards and a TD.
Hillwood tallied 445 yards of offense.
“We really wanted to win this game,” said coach Kurt Page. “I don’t believe in moral victories but what I take away from this game is that our team fought for 48 minutes and never gave up.”
The 41-point outburst was a prelude to personal bests for seniors Kinnard, Bass and Page.
Kinnard’s 10 receptions and 209 yards were both chart toppers for the talented receiver, whose previous high-water mark was a six catch, 134-yard effort against
Pope John Paul II last season.
Bass in his initial action at running back, posted career-highs in carries, yards and reached paydirt for the first time.
Not quite a career-best passing night for Page but he recorded his second-highest career passing yards in a game only bested by a 317-yard passing night at Montgomery Central in 2016. The senior finished the night completing 18 of his 45 passes with an interception.
“We had some seniors make plays,” said the 4th-year coach. “Their leadership is important for our team and it showed with continued fight.”
After a defensive battle in the first half, which included a scoreless first quarter and a 13-13 tie at halftime, both teams combined for an eye-popping 64 points in the second half.
Central QB Dorian Davis opened the second half onslaught just 37-seconds into the 3rd- quarter with a 27-yard TD run to put the Lions up, 20-13.
Hillwood answered on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Page to Carder, who made a diving catch in the end zone, leaving the score 23-19 after a failed 2-point conversion. The touchdown ended Central’s streak of 20-straight points to end the first half and begin the second. The Toppers special teams were credited for the next score as Kinnard recovered an errant snap to Lions punter Diaz in the end zone. Page’s 2-point conversion run, pulled Hillwood back on top, 27-23.
Central counter-punched and retook the lead, 30-27, as backup quarterback Dane Sykes connected on a 15-yard pass to wideout Blake Simmons. The Lions would strike twice more within the next five minutes on a Sykes 45-yard pass to Davis and a Davis 5-yard run to expand the score to 42-27.
Faced with its largest deficit of the game, the Toppers offense relied on the ground game and cashed in on a 19-yard rumble by Bass. A Page strike to tight end Miller Baker on a 2-point conversion cut the margin to seven points at 42-35.
With less than a minute expired from the clock, the elusive Davis sprang free for a 50-yard TD run. Again faced with a two-touchdown deficit, Hillwood answered on a 10-yard touchdown connection from Page to Kinnard.
Trailing by eight points, 49-41, with 1:21 remaining, Hillwood’s onside kick was recovered by Central, which subsequently ran out the clock for the final score of 49-41.
There were many positives to take from the game, especially the offensive line. The Toppers rushed for 150 yards, which bested nine of the 11 games last season.
“Our offensive line did a terrific job against an extremely talented Columbia defensive front,” said Page. “Nick Brothers, Tony Tracy, Harisen Miller, Ethan Myrda and Phillip Morrison more than held there on.”
Defensively, the Toppers were victims of the multi-faceted Davis, who accounted for 396 combined rushing, passing, receiving yards and six touchdowns.
“We are a developing defense, transitioning to a 3-4,” Page said. “I saw some good things from our defense even though the score may not indicate it.”
The good things were Bass, who had six tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery and a pass defended. Joining Bass as a defensive superlative was freshman Devion Kinnard (bother of Eric), who had six passes defensed and four tackles. Big brother Eric recovered a botched snap on a punt for a TD and totaled three tackles. Junior reserve outside linebacker TyGary Pruitt snagged an interception on a deflection and posted three tackles.
Hillwood returns to action on Thursday night, playing host to Portland. The Toppers won at Portland last season as the train horn sounded only twice in a 15-12 hard-fought victory.
“It’s another home game for us, which is good. I expect to see improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 and less jitters from the youngsters that experienced their first start,” said Page.
Kickoff for Thursday night’s game is 7 p.m.