Quarterback Hunter Arters threw a touchdown pass and scored on an 18-yard run Friday to lead the Hawks to a 14-7 victory over rival McEachern in a game that decided the Region 3-AAAAAAA championship.
Hillgrove secured its first region title since 2014 and the third in school history. The Hawks (7-3, 4-1) will be at home against Roswell next week in the first round of the playoffs.
McEachern (7-3, 4-1) finished as the region’s No. 2 and will host Etowah in its first-round game. The loss ended the Indians’ two-year reign as region champions and snapped their 15-game winning streak in region games. McEachern’s most recent region loss had come in the final game of the 2014 regular season against Hillgrove in a game that also determined the region champion.
Arters provided the winning points on Hillgrove’s first drive of the second half, when his 18-yard scramble capped off a 14-play, 72-yard drive to give the Hawks a 14-7 lead with 6:55 remaining in the third quarter.
Two teams that are used to producing big plays and lots of points – Hillgrove was averaging 30.4 points per game, and McEachern 30.3 – got very few of either. It was the lowest-scoring game in the eight-year history of the series, which is now tied 4-4.
This time it was a grind-it-out, ball-control affair, and that was evident from the outset as each team went on a six-minute drive on its only first-quarter possession but came away with no points.
“It was a different game, had a different feel with the way things were going,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said “I’m just very proud of the kids and the coaches. They just stayed steady. That’s what we preach, and that’s what we did.”
Hillgrove finally broke through midway through the second quarter when Arters threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Jackson with 5:05 to play in the half. Arters set up the touchdown with a 46-yard pass to Chigoziem Okonkwo.
Afters was 16-of-28 passing on the night for 195 yards. Trevor Smith had 61 of Hillgrove’s 122 rushing yards, and the Hawks finished with 317 total yards.
McEachern tied the score three minutes later when Malik Evans threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Genuine Potts on the first play after the Indians got the ball deep in Hillgrove territory when Dante Fleming blocked a Hawks punt.
Hillgrove had other chances to score but missed three field goals in the 40-yard range and threw an interception at the 8-yard line.
McEachern’s only other scoring opportunity came on its first drive of the game, but the Indians turned the ball over on downs on an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-goal play from the Hillgrove 4. That possession and the Indians’ short touchdown drive were the only times McEachern got into Hillgrove territory all night.
McEachern’s Paris Brown rushed for 99 yards on 21 carries, but the Indians finished with 197 yards of total offense and completed only 11 of 27 passes.
“Our kids just played hard,” Ironside said. “[McEachern’s] kinda one-dimensional, and that helps you a little bit, but they’re just so fast and so athletic. But our defense was just … hats off to [linebackers coach Luqman] Salam, much maligned early in the year, but we’ve just gotten better and better and better.”
McEachern – 0-7-0-0 – 7
Hillgrove – 0-7-7-0 – 14
H – Jalen Jackson 10 pass from Hunter Arters (Luis Garcia-Cano kick)
M – Genuine Potts 14 pass from Malik Evans (Roben Rodriquez kick)
H – Arters 18 run (Garcia-Cano kick)