Toppers Got Better As 2021 Went On

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I can’t speak for everyone, but the improvement shown by the Topper football team this fall has left me in a state of euphoria. 

Cynics might say the four consecutive wins were more the result of the schedule than of better play, but chances are those cynics didn’t see many of the games.

The first win of the season, against Gillespie on their field, broke an 11 game losing streak - if one must include the six losses this spring. 

The 11 included a game at Mater Dei last spring and a 3-0 loss to class 4-A Paris in the fifth game this fall. (Not only was Paris 7-2 heading into the playoffs, but their defense, especially the down linemen, were as good as any Hillsboro faced.)

I would imagine Gillespie, Staunton, and Piasa Southwestern hoped to roll over the Toppers as the other conference foes had. 

I have two specific complaints about the IHSA playoff selections by points; one, of course, is the inclusion of non-boundary schools (that to me violates the principles used to group schools by size). The other is the disregarding of head-to-head results; Hillsboro ran over and through Southwestern in week eight, winning 41-14, but the Birds made the playoffs while the Toppers did not.

As a happy consequence, the squad goes on to other endeavors without the sting of defeat in their last game; teams who make the playoffs finish with a loss if they don’t win a state championship.

Having  to learn their third system (both offensively and defensively) in as many years complicated matters. Then it took a while to buy in – to see its strengths for a team. Finally, they had to develop confidence in each other; it’s hard to be an effective quarterback or running back if one fears the line isn’t capable of doing its job. Because the coaching staff came here relatively late in the summer, the time to learn was compacted.

It’s also hard to develop needed confidence while playing the elite of the conference; in the first four games, Hillsboro was outscored 145 to 49. The offense moved the ball, but turnovers at crucial times derailed drives. Still, the Toppers kept faith that better days were coming. 

Coach Reed points to a minor change that had far-reaching effects. Leading rusher (and also top tackler) Blaze Helton began the season with a stand-up stance; the coaches changed that into a three-point stance that kept him lower as a runner. His most productive rushing games (Staunton 139 yards, Piasa 221, and Litchfield 184) came after the change, and the attention he drew helped free the wingbacks (Blaine Stewart, Joe Keiser, and Jaben Compton) to have more success.

Coach Reed also said that as his offensive linemen became familiar with the blocking schemes, they would suggest plays they felt might work in given situations based on what they were experiencing on the field. To have players knowledgeable enough to do that is better than relying on tapes of past games. 

Statistically the number of passes thrown went down, but the numbers in the “Yards Gained Passing” category rose. Yards gained rushing? The low was 101 against Paris (game five) ; the high (415) came in the “Best of the Rest Bowl” in the rain at Piasa. The runners, including the quarterback, rushed for over 300 yards in each of the last four games as the line came together.

The seniors will be missed next season, particularly two-way performers Magnus Wells, Ian Malloy, and Maddex Scott. Lost from the backfield are Joe Keiser and Blaine Stewart; the receiving corps loses Bryce Connor (second to Stewart in passes caught) and tight end Kayden Liebscher. Garret Schaake was a stalwart on the special teams.

Defensively, in addition to Malloy, Wells, Scott, Liebscher, and Stewart, Hillsboro will no longer have Dalton Reynolds (admired by his teammates for his willingness to launch his relatively small body at bigger opponents). Also leaving are the injured – Carson Maddaleno, an effective lineman who missed most of the season, and Drake Mullen, who missed the last eight games because of a non-football ankle injury.

The cupboard won’t be bare for 2022, though. Returning for a third season will be quarterback Zane Duff, Helton, and Compton in the backfield. Compton, also the most-used placekicker, drew the praise of assistant coach Roger Fath, who predicted before the Sports’ Drink game that Compton would be the most improved before the season ended. Coach Reed had praise for two juniors in the offensive line, center Kyle Butler and guard Reese Morford. Brayden Fowler and Cameron Hacke have a season of varsity experience in a secondary that consistently improved. Also, the underclassmen who mostly stood along the sidelines during varsity games ran the system in the freshman/sophomore games.

The eye test showed many of them are big enough to be effective varsity players; Coach Reed said he has seen his father (one of the assistant coaches) turn prospects into very effective linemen.

Despite the poor record to begin the season, I personally enjoyed covering this team. I always enjoy the pre-game crowd comments as I climb to the press box and the people who inhabit it - spotters Rick Vogel and Drake Paden, rules expert Evan Malloy, who ran both the game clock and the play clock; and public address announcer/ringmaster Blake Malloy. I enjoy the band; the cheerleaders counting out points scored by doing jumping jacks; and the concession stand workers. Even the 50-50 ticket sellers and the gate personnel are appreciated though seldom thanked for their efforts.

Home games especially were community events that I at least sorely missed in the fall of 2020. Thank you, players, team and supporters, for another memorable season.

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