By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

HOLTON – So what’s up with the Hesperia football team?

It wasn’t so long ago that the Panthers had one of the worst varsity programs in the area, and possibly in the state.

Who could forget Hesperia’s historic 27-game losing streak between 2004 and 2006, followed by a single win season in 2008 and another winless campaign in 2009?

But now suddenly Hesperia is 4-0 following Friday night’s 40-19 defeat of rival Holton in Central State Athletic Association action.

It has been 21 years since the Panthers started the season with four straight wins. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002.

But now the six wins necessary for a postseason berth are clearly within reach. And Hesperia may even compete for the conference title, despite being one of the smallest schools in the CSAA.

“We hope so,” said Hesperia coach Todd Myers, regarding a possible title. “We have high expectations for this team. If we stay healthy, there’s talent here, and we know they can do things. We’re very pleased with the kids we have. They listen very well. We’ve been on them for four years now about learning the game of football and doing all the little things that make a difference.”

One of the Panther’s biggest challenges is having a small squad in terms of numbers. They are down to 17 players dressing for games, which means most of the guys are on the field most of the time, and there’s little room for any more injuries.

“Our biggest issue is always health,” Myers said. “If we can stay healthy the rest of the season, there’s nobody we’re intimidated by. We lost two good seniors, one at the start of the season, and one of our starting tackles went down last week with a broken leg.

Hesperia won the M-120 showdown against Holton with its power running game, which gave the visitors an early lead and carried them through a dominant second half.

Senior running back Eldon Graham finished with 150 yards on 19 carries and three touchdowns. His senior backfield mate, Brett Salisbury, totaled 136 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns.

Myers gave equal credit to the senior backs and the offensive line.

“Our offensive line is young and our backfield guys are seniors, and the combination has been working great,” he said. “We had to fill a couple of slots (on the line). We thought going to be more senior heavy, but we had the two seniors go out with injuries. We’ve had some freshmen and sophomores come up and fill the gaps.”

Myers cited linemen Wyatt Conkle, Josh Ehrke and Colin Kleiner for their outstanding play on Friday. He noted that Kleiner, a senior, started the season at running back but moved to the line to help fill holes when injuries took a toll.

Fumbles proved to be deadly for Holton throughout the contest.

The Panthers struck first early in the first quarter, following a Holton fumble. Salisbury capped a six-yard, 42-play drive with a 28-yard touchdown burst.

Salisbury added the two-point run, giving Hesperia an 8-0 lead.

Holton coughed the ball up again about two minutes later, giving Hesperia the ball at the Red Devil 19. Graham scored five plays later with a one-yard plunge, and the two-point conversion gave the visitors a seemingly comfortable 16-0 lead.

But Holton did not fold under the pressure of the early deficit.

Junior quarterback Hayden Cregg got the Red Devils rolling on their next drive, completing a 55-yard cross pattern pass to Brad Epplett that set up a 22-yard field goal.

Hesperia started the second quarter with a drive to the Holton 37 that threatened to break the game open, but Grant Younts intercepted a long Hesperia pass in the end zone, giving the ball back to the Red Devils.

Cregg took advantage five plays later, hitting sophomore wide receiver Jacob Bowden down the right sideline for a 26-yard scoring strike to cut the Hesperia lead to 16-9.

Another field goal, following a Hesperia fumble, left the score at 16-12 at halftime.

Cregg, who kicked both field goals for Holton, completed 4 of 7 passes in the first half for 106 yards.

Holton had a golden opportunity to take the lead early in the third quarter, after stopping the Panthers on fourth-and-one at their own 29 yard line. But three plays later the Red Devils lost their third fumble of the game, returning the ball and the momentum to Hesperia.

“We’re turning the ball over going in and we can’t do that,” said Holton coach Chris Hilliker, whose team dropped to 0-4 overall and in the conference. “That’s a momentum changer right there. We get a stop, we’re going in and if we score we’re up. We were able to battle back from the first couple of turnovers. We gifted them the first 16 points, in my opinion, with the first two turnovers.”

The key turnover turned out to be all the Panthers needed.

Salisbury capped a 13-play, 58-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. The two-point conversion gave Hesperia a 24-12 edge.

Holton coughed the ball up again one play into its next drive, giving Hesperia possession at the Red Devil 46. Two plays later Graham burst through the middle and down the left sideline for a 43-yard touchdown run, and the conversion gave the Panthers a 32-12 lead.

Epplett had the lone bright moment for Holton in the second half, taking the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown.

But Hesperia answered with a 15-play drive covering 85 yards, culminating with a seven-yard scoring run by Graham.

“They are a tough physical team with tough physical backs,” Hilliker said. “That’s what they’re built for and they use that to their advantage. We got to step up and make the tackles. Sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t. That’s football.”