It looked like a battle of middleweight fighters Friday when Marion tangled with Hillsboro on the gridiron.
No lazy heavyweight rope-a-dope tactics for these rivals; no, the blows came in steady, rapid succession, until Hillsboro landed a third-quarter haymaker by knocking Warriors quarterback Taylor Heidebrecht out of the game. The Trojans waded in with a flurry of second-half scoring blows after that to subdue the Warriors, 40-21, and drop Marion to 1-1 in district play.
Marion entered the second half with a 21-20 lead, and quickly seized momentum when James Jones intercepted a pass on the right sideline and returned it to the Hillsboro 15-yard line.
Heidebrecht had already amassed 108 yards rushing when he carried the ball on third down around left end to the 8. Heidebrecht stayed on the turf after the whistle, eventually walked off the field, and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines, his right shoulder wrapped and iced.
Enter reserve quarterback Zach Robson, tossed into the ring on a pressure-packed fourth-and-3. Robson performed well in relief two weeks earlier against Trinity Catholic of Hutchinson, and head coach Grant Thierolf called his number immediately. Robson lofted a pass to the deep right corner of the end zone for receiver Jacob Harper. Harper and Trojan defensive back Jesse Brown leaped with arms outstretched, simultaneously grabbing the ball at the top of their jumps. As they fell to the ground, the ball came loose, the pass was incomplete, and Hillsboro had turned back the Warriors’ scoring opportunity.
“He had made that throw at Trinity, and we were confident. You put your best receiver in a position to make a play, and we came awfully close,” Thierolf said.
The Trojans methodically punched the ball out to the midfield stripe, where on first-and-10 quarterback Tyler Proffitt found receiver Shaq Thiessen speeding across the middle. Thiessen hauled in the pass and raced all the way to the end zone, and the extra point gave Hillsboro a lead they would never relinquish, 26-21.
Marion’s 21-point outburst in the first half was a rude awakening for the Trojan defense, which had recorded three consecutive shutouts coming into the contest. In five of their seven prior games, Hillsboro had given up a total of only 12 points.
Hillsboro capitalized on a Marion fumble near midfield with a drive ending in a 17-yard touchdown run by Preston Nelson to take an early 7-0 lead.
Marion responded with an 83-yard scoring drive on their second possession of the game, ending any thoughts the Trojans had of a shutout. A 37-yard pass from Heidebrecht to Jacob Harper moved the ball to the Hillsboro 16. Carroll bulled his way through the middle to the 1 and scored on the next play. Grif Case’s extra point knotted the score at 7-7 with 6:52 remaining in the first quarter.
Hillsboro drove from its own 20 down to the Marion 1 on their next drive. A 5-yard illegal procedure penalty moved the ball back to the 6, and defensive plays keyed by Warriors Spencer Fugitt, Kyle Palic, and Evan Slater forced the Trojans into a field goal try, which they missed.
Marion took over on their 9-yard line, and Carroll picked up 9 yards on first down. Heidebrecht ripped off runs of 27 and 22 yards as Marion drove to the Hillsboro 19 to open the second quarter. Carroll found a hole in the middle and plowed his way into the end zone from there, putting Marion ahead, 13-6, at the 10:59 mark.
Hillsboro regained the lead, 14-13, with a 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Proffitt to Evan Ollenburger with 8:44 remaining before the half.
The Trojans tried to catch the Warriors by surprise with an onside kick, but an alert Caleb Williams covered the ball for the Warriors, who took over in good field position at their 41-yard line. Marion couldn’t move the ball, and Hillsboro got the ball back on the Trojan 15 after a Palic punt.
Jones came up with his first interception of the game three plays later. Proffitt threw a sideline pass to Thiessen that was high, and Jones made a diving catch, setting Marion up at the Trojan 27.
Three runs by Heidebrecht and one by Carroll took the ball to the 5-yard line, and Heidebrecht finished off the short drive by slicing through a hole on the left side of the line for the go-ahead touchdown. Heidebrecht passed to Williams for the 2-point conversion, and Marion led, 21-14, with 3:35 left in the half.
Fourteen seconds later, Hillsboro was back to within one, as Thiessen caught the ensuing kickoff at the Trojan 8-yard line and blazed down the right sideline for a 92-yard touchdown return. The Trojans missed the extra point, preserving a 21-20 Marion lead going into halftime.
“We knew we’d have to do things right, and we put together some nice long drives,” Thierolf said. “Our kids were focused. We played some awfully good teams in the HOA (Heart of America League) that prepared us for games like this. This was our fourth game with our offensive line the way we envisioned it at the first of the year. They’re just starting to get a feel for each other, and I knew we were capable of playing like that when we got everybody healthy.”
Marion mounted three scoring threats in the red zone following Heidebrecht’s exit, but were turned away each time by the rejuvenated Trojan defense.
“They made some adjustments, and we probably didn’t adjust quickly enough to them,” Thierolf said. “Sometimes in games like this, attrition takes its toll. It was a case where we were trying to make plays and just didn’t get them made.”
Marion needs a victory Thursday at Moundridge to qualify for post-season play, and Robson will be at the controls for the Marion offense.
“Given a week of practice, we’ll be prepared for those changes. We’re still going to run the option, we’re still going to do our offense. You don’t change things after eight weeks, you just tweak them a little bit. You find out what your quarterback feels comfortable doing, and you get him into that comfort zone.”
Thierolf said the success of Marion’s offense hinges on how successful the offensive line is against the Railers.
“Most importantly, you tell your offensive line ‘You’re going to determine the game, you’re going to give him all the time in the world to make the reads, you’re going to do everything you possibly can do to make his job easy,” Thierolf said. “If our offensive line does that this week, we’ll be OK.”