On Friday the Hillsboro Indians will make their long-awaited return to the Ohio High School Athletic Association State Football Playoffs when they travel to Columbus to take on Eastmoor Academy in a Division III Region 11 first round playoff matchup.
Hillsboro finished its regular season Friday, Oct. 26, when they beat the McClain Tigers in the annual Rotary Bowl matchup to end the season with a record of 9-1 (4-1 conference) and earn a share of the Frontier Athletic Conference championship.
The Indians are gunning to replace the zero in the wins column on their playoff record as the Hillsboro football program has made six previous playoff appearances, but have been unable to register a win.
Hillsboro’s last playoff appearance came in 2005 when it fell to eventual D-III state champions St. Francis de Sales, 56-0.
Columbus Eastmoor Academy finished its season with a record of 9-1 (7-0 league) and was the Columbus City-South League champions.
The Warriors have been to the playoffs 17 times in school history and are three games under .500 with a playoff record of 7-10.
Eastmoor Academy made its last trip to the playoffs in 2016 when it hosted Beechcroft and lost 19-15.
The Indians have relied on their run game this season much as they did last year and have racked up 3,864 rushing yards combined in 2018 on 449 carries for an average of 8.61 yards per attempt.
Hillsboro’s leading rusher is senior Josh Keets, who has amassed 1,327 rushing yards on 106 carries and is averaging 12.52 yards per carry.
Hillsboro Head Coach Jack O’Rourke said that Keets was “a lot to handle” for opposing defenses and has had “great holes” to run through all season long, and also pointed to the success of fellow running backs Deon Burns and Mark Gallimore as “nice balances” to what the Indians are doing with Keets in the run game this season.
Burns is the second leading rusher for the Indians with 922 yards on the season and Gallimore has stepped up in a big way for Hillboro with 887 rushing yards on only 78 carries.
“Deon’s biggest improvement this season is that he has been healthy all year,” said O’Rourke. “He has been a key part of what we want to do offensively this season. Mark has not surprised any of us this season. He is a very talented kid and could very well be the top running back on a lot of teams.”
One of the keys to the offensive success the Indians have experienced over the last two years can be attributed to the stellar play of the offensive line, according to starting quarterback Mason Swayne.
“On behalf of me and the backfield we have, we do think we have the best line in the state of Ohio and we will go against anybody to prove that,” said Swayne. “Lane Cluff, Silas Simmons, Max Conover, Zacha Burns, Draven Stodgel, Reece Bloomfield, Sanchez Seals, Michael Rose and Richard Adkins work day in and day out to make the holes and get us the drive that we need, and we are beyond thankful for what they do to keep us protected.”
Eastmoor Academy is no slouch offensively as it has averaged 46.6 points per game and had a stretch of three games against Independence, West and Briggs when they scored at least 60 points.
However, they were held to 24 points in their week three loss to Westerville Central and needed a miracle touchdown on a botched field goal attempt to top 20 points against Walnut Ridge in week five.
“They have some really good athletes and are capable of putting up points,” O’Rourke said. “But if we can control the game, get first downs and keep our defense off the field, I think we will be fine on Friday.”
Defensively, Hillsboro has put forth a concerted effort to be better in the 2018 season. According to Swayne, “We made it a big point of emphasis to step up our defense this year because we knew that defense wins championships and that’s proven true in the conference this year.”
The Indians are plus-15 in the turnover category this season with only nine of their own while forcing opponents into 24 in 2018.
“The turnovers, we actually have a turnover hammer and every time we get a turnover we raise that up and that’s kind of our symbol to show that is what our point of emphasis is. That really gets us hyped up to go out and do that,” Swayne said.
Justin Spears and Logan Hester are the top two tacklers for Hillsboro with 55 and 54 tackles, respectively.
Spears is also second on the team with three interceptions and trails only Swayne, who has four.
Max Conover has been stellar for Hillsboro on the defensive side of the ball with six sacks, 46 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Defensively, the Warriors have allowed only 12.6 points per game in the regular season and have held their past three opponents scoreless.
Despite finishing ahead of Hillsboro in the OHSAA computer rankings, Eastmoor only faced two teams this season with winning records. Its lone loss came against a Westerville Central team that finished the season 5-5.
Hillsboro, on the other hand, faced five teams that were above .500 on the season and its lone loss of the season to Chillicothe was decided on the last play of the game when Keets was unable to score as time expired.
Swayne said being among the first group of seniors to lead Hillsboro to the playoffs in 13 years was “surreal.”
“We have been working hard at it for a long time and that’s a goal that we set as soon as we got into high school, and it is just crazy to see it happen now,” Swayne told The Times-Gazette.
Swayne talked about the pressure he feels going into the game on Friday with a chance to record the first win in Hillsboro football playoff history.
“There is always pressure going into a situation like this. You got everybody really counting on you to perform at your best,” he said. “But, we see it as we have proven all the doubters wrong and that we are capable of doing what we are doing right now. We really believe that if we just go out there and play our game, then we can become that first team to win a playoff game.”
The Indians will be traveling to the game in style on Saturday when they depart Hillsboro High School in a deluxe passenger bus provided by donations from community members. The bus will roll through the middle of Hillsboro on U.S. 62 with a police escort, and the Indians have asked that local businesses and fans line the streets to see them off.
Ryan Applegate is the sports editor for The Times-Gazette. Reach Ryan Applegate at 937-402-2572, or on Twitter @RCApplegate89.