SIMPSONVILLE — The opener of Hillcrest’s “second season” Friday night went a lot like the original season opener this year.
The Rams, who knocked off Mauldin 61-18 to open the regular season, opened the Class AAAA Division I playoffs with a 41-7 win over the Mavericks.
Following a week off and facing its biggest rival, Hillcrest coach Greg Porter was pleased with how his team took care of business.
“You never know what to expect from Mauldin. It’s a rivalry game and a playoff game,” Porter said. “They’ve had some injuries and we felt their new quarterback’s strength was running. I thought our defensive coaches did an excellent job of preparing to stop his strength.”
The win sends No. 6 seed Hillcrest (10-2) on a long road trip to third-seeded Goose Creek (8-3) next Friday. Goose Creek defeated No. 14 seed Carolina Forest 39-27.
“Sometimes I think this team plays better on the road than we do at home,” Porter said. “Goose Creek is an excellent team. They’ve got a big defensive end being recruited by Alabama. It’s round two and it should be an awesome game.”
The Rams overcame negative plays and penalties to jump out to a 27-0 lead at the half.
On the opening drive of the game, Hillcrest faced fourth-and-20 when Collin Sneed passed to a sliding Brandon Peppers in the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown.
The Rams’ next two drives went nine and 11 plays, respectively, but resulted in no points. The first drive ended on an incompletion on fourth-and-goal at Mauldin’s 26-yard line, while the next ended on a fumble at Mauldin’s 6-yard line.
Hillcrest got rolling after the Mavericks returned the favor with a fumble back to the Rams three plays later. On third-and-10, Sneed and Peppers connected on a 15-yard touchdown pass.
On the second play of Mauldin’s ensuing possession, Hillcrest’s Raymond Griffin came up with the first of his two interceptions Friday. Four plays later on 4th-and-16, Sneed threw a 27-yard touchdown to Peppers to give the Rams a 21-0 lead with 7:02 left in the second quarter.
“We believe in our kids so much sometimes we ignore common sense I guess,” Porter said with a laugh when describing the two fourth-and-long touchdowns. “We look at down and distance, at probability, at our success rate on fourth down … and we just give it a shot.
“Our kids buy into it and sometimes it works out for us.”
After Hillcrest lost starting wide receiver Jaleel Thomas to injury in practice prior to the regular-season finale, Peppers has five touchdown receptions in the past two games.
“It’s so good to see a kid develop in the program and become a major impact player at this point in the season, when we really needed him to,” Porter said.
Quintavis Ballenger had the final first-half score for Hillcrest with a 10-yard touchdown run.
In the third quarter, Keith Humphrey capped the scoring for the Rams with touchdown runs of 48 and 5 yards, respectively.
Mauldin (5-7) scored with 2:08 left to play on a 6-yard run by Averius Blakely.
Peppers finished with six catches for 98 yards, while North-South All-Star Brian Spurgeon caught five passes for 96 yards for Hillcrest. The Rams’ defense had four sacks, three turnovers and held the Mavericks to 153 yards of total offense.