ROXANA — The Roxana Shells put forth their best effort of the young 2016 season in their home opener at Charlie Raich Field on Friday. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to pull out their first win.
Roxana fell 20-12 to the Hillsboro Hiltoppers in South Central Conference action. With the loss the Shells dipped to 0-3, while Hillsboro is now 3-0.
The effort was much improved from a tough 54-0 loss at Carlinville in Week 1 and a 69-18 loss at Pana during Week 2.
“We played a lot better this week than we've played the last two weeks,” Roxana head coach Pat Keith said. “We're a young football team and I thought tonight was the first time we've responded to adversity. There was the fumble that caromed off of one of our players and was recovered for the touchdown, the blocked punt where we had a breakdown, but the defense played a great game tonight, offensively we moved the ball at times. I think we played better than the last two weeks definitely and Hillsboro is a good football team.”
The game was tight entering the half with the Hiltoppers leading just 7-6, but the game changer came midway through the third quarter. On a first-and-15 at the Roxana 35-yard line, the Shells went to make a pitch, but the ball caromed off a player and into the hands of Hillsboro's Dalton Deming who ran 32 yards into the end zone. Jordan Gregg's extra point was good, putting the Hiltoppers up 14-6.
It was one of two turnovers for Roxana in the game. Hillsboro also had two fumbles for turnovers and four fumbles total in the game.
“I knew it was going to be a war. They're a good football team,” Hiltoppers' head coach Aaron Duff said. “They played two tough football teams the first two weeks and they've been in this situation before and know how to win. We put the ball on the ground four times and made some mistakes and played sloppy and that hurt us in the beginning.”
Roxana got an early fumble recovery by Wyatt Kirkpatrick and was able to score first in the game. Jordan Hawkins punched in a 5-yard rushing TD at the 6:51 mark of the second quarter. The Shells went for two points, but failed, nabbing a 6-0 lead.
Hillsboro was able to answer with 2:30 remaining in the first half. Dillon Civitate scored on an 8-yard run and Gregg's PAT put the Hiltoppers up 7-6 entering the break.
After Hillsboro's third-quarter fumble recovery for a TD, Roxana climbed on the scoreboard again with some tough running. Michael Cherry had runs of 36 and 11 yards and Hawkins popped off a 10-yard scamper during a 9-play, 83-yard scoring drive. Cherry capped the series with a 6-yard run at the 2:21 mark of the third quarter. Again the Shells failed to convert the 2-point try and trailed 14-12.
Cherry and Hawkins found some success on the ground, which pleased Keith. Hawkins hauled the rock 19 times for 75 yards and a TD, while Cherry carried it 9 times for 66 yards and a score.
“We've got to get better at that and throwing the football,” Keith said of finding a more balanced offense to complement Hawkins' run game. “If not they're going to start loading the box against us. We've got to do a better job of throwing the football and getting better protection for our quarterback (Marcus Hartnett). When we tried to throw tonight he got pressured a lot. We have things to work on, but we played a lot better tonight and when we look at film hopefully we see some good things for next week against Vandalia and get a win.”
A late 2-yard TD run by Hillsboro's Christian Hernandez looked to put the nail in the coffin with 1:13 to play in the game, but when the PAT was missed it left the score at 20-12 and the Shells within one score.
Cherry took the ensuing kickoff and ran it 33 yards down to the Hiltoppers' 36-yard line. Following an incomplete pass, Hawkins rumbled for 9 yards before slipping on the wet turf on what looked to be an opportunity for a long run. Hartnett was picked off on the next play and Hillsboro took a knee to close out the victory.
Without non-conference games on the schedule, Roxana has its work cut out on the season, but starting with Carlinville, Pana and Hillsboro make it even harder. Keith said he can't worry about that though.
“It doesn't change, it's the same every year,” he said. “I haven't seen the scores tonight, but I think it's a competitive conference from top to bottom and we're going to be in for a battle every week. We have to gain experience still, but tonight I think the guys responded and it's a different type of atmosphere when you're in a football game and you're not. I was proud of them tonight.”
The Shells will welcome Vandalia to Roxana in Week 4. The Vandals will come to town with a 2-1 record.