Raise your hand if you thought the Hillcrest Hornets — playing for the first time in four years without mega-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham — would contend for an Ozark Conference title.
The fact is, most looked for the Hornets’ football program to quickly descend back into mediocrity without its star attraction.
Perhaps that’s why Hillcrest’s 35-14 victory over Waynesville Friday night at Shumate Stadium — which clinched a share of the Ozark Conference crown — seemed to be very gratifying to the Hornets.
“One of the things I guess you could say I was disappointed in is that no matter what we accomplished when Dorial was here, it was always just because we had Dorial,” said Hillcrest coach and Dorial’s stepfather John Beckham. “We had good football players that graduated and moved on and other good football players that were behind them and moved up.
“This is just testament to our team, our program, that we were more than one guy even though that was what we were perceived to be.””
Add to the fact that the Hornets are one of just two Class 4 schools in a conference dominated by bigger schools, and the Hornets now have back-to-back titles, is a pretty big deal.
Hillcrest improved to 8-1 overall and in the OC and shares the crown with Lebanon, a 31-21 winner over Parkview.
“We had a lot of motivation and it started with all the doubters that underestimated us,” said junior C.J. Hubbard, the anchor of a good defense. “No one thought we would make this far and now we are 8-1 and conference champs two years in a row. It proves a lot.”
And the win over Waynesville was a display of the myriad of reasons why.
Jonah Hill — the transfer in from Marshfield that spent last season at tight end — directed this offense much of the year and scored three rushing touchdowns against the Tigers.
Juwan Johnson — once a talented sophomore receiving compliment to DGB — gained 126 rushing yards after being moved to running back this season.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Johnson said. “Hillcrest has only four conference titles in 55 years and I’ve been a part of two of them. (Dorial) is a great player, but I guess we didn’t need him this season.”
And finally the Hornets defense, which was much-maligned as the reason Hillcrest couldn’t advance in the postseason during DGB’s four years. The defensive unit limited Waynesville to just 75 yards of total offense and forced three turnovers — before the second unit entered — showing why it has been one of the area’s toughest units. Waynesville (3-6) had 14 plays that either gained nothing or lost yardage.
“When I was a freshman, our defense wasn’t very good,” Hubbard said. “We just kept working and improving and we feel like it’s all come together. We still have a lot of improving to do, but we’ll do whatever it takes.”
Hillcrest led 14-0 at halftime after a pair of short touchdown runs by Hill. Matt Rush, a move-in from Waynesville, scored on a 74-yard touchdown run against his former team to open the third quarter. Hill added another short TD run for a 28-0 lead before the Hornets substituted on both sides.
“I don’t think we played particularly well tonight at times, but we are fairly healthy,” Beckham said about the start of district play next Thursday. “I think we are going to be alright. It’s going to be a dogfight because we are in a really tough district.”