Hillsboro High School head coach football coach Lance Sawyer described the 28-6 win over Nickerson as a statement victory.
The statement was that Hillsboro has a good football team that can play with anyone. Nickerson was ranked in the top 5 in 4A coming into the game Friday in Hillsboro. They put up 50 points in the second half against Hesston the week before.
Middle linebacker Tyrell Thiessen added the statement also included that no one will be able to run on the Trojans athletic front seven.
Nickerson employed an option running attack looking to take advantage of three senior offensive lineman who were 270 pounds or larger, a senior running back with speed and size at 200 pounds, and a shifty sophomore quarterback. Hillsboro held Nickerson to 211 yards of total offense, 90 yards on the ground.
And the Hillsboro defense was more dominant than the numbers would suggest because they came up with crucial stops. Nickerson was threatening to score its second touchdown of the game with less than a minute remaining in the first half, down 21-6. The Panthers passed their way to the Hillsboro goal line, converting a fourth-and-11 hitch play to running back Sean Rodriguez who recovered a fumble to pass the first down marker.
Nickerson had first-and-goal from the Hillsboro 5-yard line. This goal-line stand epitomized the defensive performance throughout the game. Quarterback Casey Goble took the first Nickerson snap to his left before being met by Thiessen and Tanner Jones.
Defensive coordinator Scott O’Hare dialed up an overload blitz sending two linebackers in the gaps alongside defensive tackle Dylan Jirak. It was an often used strategy by Hillsboro in the first half. Thiessen said it was impossible for Nickerson to block the three-pronged rush. With defenders in his face, Goble released a pitch to Rodriguez, who was met at the line of scrimmage by cornerback Evan Ollenburger. Ollenburger and Tyler Proffitt were instrumental in containing pitchmen on the option, not allowing Nickerson any daylight to run to the sideline. Eventually Nickerson gave up running the traditional quarterback option in the second half because Hillsboro defended it so completely.
“We knew we had to stop the option,” Sawyer said.
Goble threw an incompletion on second down. Rodriguez caught the pass along the right end-zone sideline but was ruled out of bounds. Ollenburger was there with tight coverage. On third-and-5, Nickerson ran a handoff to Rodriguez for an inside run which was stuffed for no gain by tackles Jirak and Nathan Unruh. Thiessen said the defensive line is the strength of the Trojans’ defense. Unruh and Jirak’s ability to eat up blocks allowed ends Josh Wiebe and Cody Delk and linebackers Thiessen, Jones, and Lucas Sinclair to make plays on ball carriers.
“Without those guys, we don’t have a defense,” Thiessen said.
After a timeout, Nickerson had 2.6 seconds left for one more play on fourth down. The Panthers went to another run up the middle. It was Thiessen who met Rodriguez in the backfield and flung the Nickerson runner backward for the emphatic tackle. Thiessen also ran in for the Trojans third touchdown of the night, a 5-yard run up the middle out of shotgun. He said the tackle at the end of the half was more important, a bigger play. Instead of the Panthers showing signs of life at the end of the half, Hillsboro held all the momentum and were prepared to receive the kickoff to start the third quarter.
“I couldn’t say anything more about that play,” Sawyer said. “That was what won us the game.”
The Trojans began the game with a fourth down stop on the Panthers opening drive and completed two more fourth down stops in the game. Thiessen had a tackle on a fourth-and-7 running attempt late in the fourth. Ollenburger broke up a fourth-and-5 pass play with 2:00 left in the game.
Hillsboro was also opportunistic. Nickerson went to the air more often in the second half. Shaq Thiessen recorded two key interceptions on third-and-long passes. He jumped a hook route in the middle of the field that set up a 7-yard Proffitt run to put Hillsboro up 28-6 early in the third quarter. On Nickerson’s next possession he intercepted a second pass along the sideline.
The Trojans recorded two more turnovers. Tyrell Thiessen picked up a fumble after an Unruh strip on the next Nickerson possession. On the next Nickerson possession, Unruh stood up another Panther running back and was responsible for a strip. Delk picked up the fumble for Hillsboro. Four Nickerson possessions, four forced turnovers.
“Nathan played great,” Sawyer said. “He was a force.”
Hillsboro’s offensive night was less impressive but effective. Quarterback Proffitt was not as sharp against a stout Nickerson defense. He threw for two touchdowns but also two interceptions. His 158 yards passing and 67 yards running were more pedestrian numbers than the stats in his first two games.
“Tyler doesn’t have to be perfect,” Sawyer said.
He does not have to be perfect because he has an all-Central Kansas League receiver in the making in Shaq Thiessen. Of those 158 passing yards, 110 went to Shaq Thiessen on four completions. Hillsboro faced fourth-and-11 on the 36-yard line. Shaq Thiessen lined up on the far right of the Hillsboro shot gun formation. With tight coverage from Jalen Karber, Shaq Thiessen took two quick steps inside, to appear as if he was running a slant, but then changed directly for a corner route. Karber bought on the double move and Shaq Thiessen created a few feet of space on the completion.
Once he had the ball, Shaq juked Karber and then sped past two Nickerson defenders, idle in the corner of the field, into the middle of the end zone.
“He’s putting in the work,” Sawyer said.
Shaq Thiessen said he is a better receiver this season because he worked on speed and agility during the offseason. He does not have to make difficult catches because he is getting wide open with speed and route running.
He can also make a difficult catch look easy. Hillsboro sputtered on two consecutive possessions, passing out of shotgun formations. The Trojans started the second quarter with a run out of a formation using Tyrell Thiessen, Sinclair, and Ollenberger in the backfield and Shaq Thiessen as the only receiver.
The next play out of the power set was a play-action fake with Shaq Thiessen running a fade up the right side line. He ran past tight coverage but the ball was underthrown. He had to slow down and out leap the defender along his hip. He hauled in the pass with both hands and ran for a 62-yard touchdown. It put Hillsboro up 14-7.
The Trojans are 3-0 and reveling in success. There are still things to work on. Tyrell Thiessen said the Trojans need to improve their deep pass defense. Sawyer lamented that Josh Wiebe only had one catch Friday and vowed to get his senior tight end more involved in later games.
However, Sawyer saw his team step up to a challenge this past week in practice. He said every session was a good practice because the Trojans brought intensity to the field.
If that intensity holds, and Sawyer does not lack for intensity, the Trojans should be tough to beat on any field.