At first glance, it may appear from the 35-0 score that Hillcrest High School easily handled visiting Carl Junction in the first round of the Class 4 District 4 tournament on Thursday, but statistically the Hornets struggled mightily in the early going.
Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the cold mixed with light rain, but whatever the reason, both teams had trouble holding on to the football and continually turned it over in the first half.
“I told our kids at halftime, that was the worst half of football that our offense has played in probably three years,” Hillcrest coach John Beckham said.
“It was a disaster. We couldn’t block anybody, we turned the ball over several times, we just couldn’t get anything going and I know this sounds crazy, but we were up 21-0.
“I don’t know what was going on, but we were struggling no doubt about it.”
The teams combined for eight first-half turnovers, but Hillcrest still found a way to salvage a sloppy first half with two key drives late in the second quarter.
Carl Junction’s fifth turnover of the first half came in the shadow of its own goal post and Hillcrest took advantage, getting the ball at the Bulldogs’ 10-yard line.
The Hornets (9-1) fumbled on the first play of the ensuing possession, their fourth fumble of the half, but recovered it to keep the drive alive.
Hillcrest scored on the next play, on an 8-yard run from senior quarterback Jonah Hill, for a 14-0 lead with 1:31 left before halftime.
“It was hard to hold on to the football tonight,” Hill said. “We’ve had a few rainy games, but tonight was the first cold one and with a little wetness I was really struggling.
“We were making a lot of mistakes in the first half. We weren’t focused in and that’s the biggest problem that you can have in a football game.
“This is one of those times when you watch the film from the first half of tonight’s game and you say, ‘how in the world is this team 9-1?’ “
But perhaps what did in Carl Junction was Hillcrest’s third touchdown of the first half.
The Hornets took possession after a Bulldogs’ punt with 37 seconds left in the second quarter and moved the ball 72 yards in 22 seconds to take a 21-0 lead into halftime.
“I think it really helped us,” Beckham said. “If we go to halftime up just two touchdowns, then maybe Carl Junction feels like they’re in the game. I think that third touchdown might have made them feel like it was one score too many.
“When we’re doing things the right way, we can make some plays. Obviously in the first half we weren’t doing that.”
Hill and Hillcrest were successful in the second half passing and didn’t turn the ball over again.
On their first possession of the third quarter, the Hornets appeared more focused and moved the ball 56 yards in seven plays and took a 28-0 lead on a 1-yard keeper by Hill.
Hill finished 20-of-35 passing for 359 yards and two touchdowns and he also had 35 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
Second-seeded Hillcrest will host third-ranked Carthage at 7 p.m. Wednesday.