The Battle for Highway A has reached new heights.
This Friday the top-seeded Hillsboro Hawks will host the third divisional seed in the form of the Festus Tigers, as these two historical rivals will gut it out for a District Championship. These programs are linked by convenient geography and separated by a passion to extinguish one another, and they will be front and center this week to leave it all on the field in a win or go home scenario.
This rivalry dates back to before man discovered fire, but the last decade-plus had seen the arrow point North for the Hawks. Hillsboro has won 12 of the last 16 head-to-head matchups, including two last year in dramatic fashion, and this year’s Week 5 58-21 dismantling. They barely edged the Tigers in a shootout in the regular season in 2021, and then clipped them in a 13-7 defensive showdown in that year’s District Semis.
North County intervened though and stole the title last year. Thankfully this season, Festus had the honor of taking revenge on those Raiders and got them out of the picture so these two could duke it out once again. The Tigers whipped NC 28-15 in the Semis and are looking to take back the hardware they earned in 2020 when they last won the District.
This time around the 6-5 Tigers will be leaning on a revamped defense that picked off four interceptions and collected eight sacks last week against North County in their Semifinal win, and a slew of offensive standouts that can bring it against any defense. Even one as vaunted at Hillsboro’s.
Co-QB’s Jeremiah Cunningham and Essien Smith will be front and center as they trade off on possessions. Cunningham is an accurate an efficient playmaker with his arm and can use his legs when he needs to, while Smith has a run-first mentality, but can shake things up through the air as well.
These two will look early and often to potential All-State Wide Receiver Arhmad Branch, who is coming off of the game of his life last week against the Raiders (181 yards, three TDs, two 2-pt conversions). As for the ground game, the Tigers will lean on Hayden Bates to carry the bulk of the load. He missed some time this season due to injury, but should be 100% for the biggest game of the season.
Shutting down these weapons won’t be easy for the Hawks, but Hillsboro is loaded on defense. This 9-1 squad boasts four players with 48 or more tackles on the season, and one of those is Austin Romaine. All he’s done this season is rack up 96 tackles, six sacks and two fumble recoveries. Not to mention, the defense as a whole has collected 15 interceptions, 19 sacks and recovered eight fumbles. They’ve also allowed 14 points or less in eight of their 10 games this season, so this defense is not one to trifle with.
On offense it’s all about the crippling rushing attack. Payton Brown, Romaine and Jaxin Patterson have all rushed for over 800 yards, with Romaine leading the way with 899, and have combined for 38 rushing scores. That is an insane ground attack and should be feared by every defense in the state.
If the Hawks do decide to throw the ball, Preston Brown has stepped in nicely at QB mid-season to rack up 690 yards and 10 TDs in his inaugural, truncated campaign. He can keep opposing defenses on their heels when they stack the box against the punishing rushing attack. Just another ace up the collective sleeve of this Hillsboro offense that has put up 498 points on the season.
This one is going to come down to execution and sheer will. Either one of these teams can be suffocating or explosive. Or both. It just depends on who will make the fewest mistakes.
The Hawks and Tigers are set to face off on Friday in Hillsboro at 7pm, and, as are all rivalry games of this ilk, this one should be an affair to remember.
You can watch the game on MSHSAA.TV or use the direct purchase link here: https://vcloud.blueframetech.com/broadcast/ppv/459694
Good luck to everyone in the area with an axe to grind.