I've eaten crow before, figuratively; and I have a napkin in my lap as I begin this review. When I wrote the football season preview back in August after watching the Toppers' pre-season sports drink scrimmage, I was perturbed that conference coaches had picked Hillsboro to finish eighth in their poll.
Performing at the scrimmage were quick running backs and big linemen who lined up precisely in whatever formation the coached called. Besides, parents (and grandparents) to whom I talked were enthusiastic as they discussed the upcoming season.
I should have known better. I hadn't seen the size of the linemen nor the quickness and size of the backs the other South Central teams would unveil. I've done this long enough to know not to make predictions based on what was once called soap games. Also, as a parent, now grandparent, I know prejudice for their offspring is a positive attitude parents must hold; if one doesn't think his progeny is good, then an unnatural relationship (most likely an unhealthy one) exists. Personally, I've been there, done that, and now realize it -- but I still fell for it this fall.
The coaches were wrong, but not in the way I predicted. The Toppers finished ninth, not eighth; they were also wrong about the conference winner, tabbing Greenville to be the champs. Vandalia with their 9-0 record showed them all. They were right about the five teams who made the playoffs, though.
What happened to the Toppers? The linemen, though of adequate size, were inexperienced in varsity play, with exception of center Finn Tyszko, who did an admirable job despite tweaking a knee. The backs, though quick and capable of catching passes, were not very big, especially not when compared to Carlinville's and Greenville's 200+ pounders. However, no one can question the heart of Jonah Harkins, who carried the ball 25 times against Piasa and 32 times against Roxana, nor Joey Lipe, whose totals improved as the season progressed. 189 yards in the finale against Pana was the most productive individual rushing game of the season for the Toppers, and it came against a 8-1 team.
I felt sorry for quarterback Jace Tuetken, especially when the Toppers were in spread formation. Defenses knew the snap was coming to him; he was either going to run (given space, he was an elusive runner), pass, or hand off to Harkins, so they converged on him. Seldom did he have a chance to stand still and pass; usually he was on the run with two or three defenders in pursuit.
The individual scoring race for the team lead came down to the last game when Lipe scored 12 points to edge Tuetken, 44-42. Jude Bertolino and Harkins tied for most passes caught (ten), edging Dylan McCammack (nine), but Lipe led in yards gained receiving (132).
Harkins was the leading rusher, both in terms of number of carries (149) and net yards gained (794); Lipe had 74 carries for 642 net yards, which produced a team leading (among those with more than 20 carries) 8.7 yards per carry average.
Defensively linebackers Jackson Hamby and Harkins were statistically the best (74 and 64 tackles respectively); Andrew Law and Lipe were third and fourth, with too many tackles for secondary people. Tuetken's three interceptions would have been four had there not been an ill-advised penalty in the Litchfield game, but three was the team's best total in that category.
The defense as a whole either spent too much time on the field, when the offense couldn't sustain clock-consuming drives; or too little, when they allowed long scoring strikes by the opponent. The Roxana game is a prime example (Roxana had 42 points but ran only 45 plays; Hillsboro had 12 points but ran 75 plays).
No matter the record, the team stuck together; among the players there seemed to be neither acceptance of their fate during games nor fingers pointing at each other when things went downhill. Those are admirable traits.
I enjoyed covering the Toppers in 2019. The spirit of the players, coaches, and even fans made this dish of crow more palatable than most.