By Brendan Samuels
The waters were certainly rough to start Friday’s action between the Eagles and Pirates. Hart’s defense was left bailing out water from their ship in the first quarter as Kent City ran the ball right up the middle to great effect.
Kent City had possession of the ball for more than nine of the game’s first 12 minutes as they used their run game to chew up the clock. An opening drive touchdown capped off by a 43-yard touchdown run from the Eagles’ Caden Hartzell along with a successful 2-point conversion had them up 8-0.
“It was tough in that first half. It was not looking good,” Hart coach Joe Tanis said. “We could not stop (Kent City). They were keeping our offense off the field, moving the ball, getting chunk runs and chewing up time.”
Fortunately for Hart, their special teams and offense were much sharper than their defense. After allowing the game’s first score, Hart’s Eman Hertzler took the following kickoff more than 60 yards down the field, setting the Pirates up at their opponent’s 14-yard line.
In typical fashion, Hart let senior back Joseluis Andaverde carry the load the rest of the way, capping off the short drive with a 6-yard touchdown run, evening the score at 8-8.
The Eagles answered back to start the second quarter, punching the ball across the goal line from 3 yards out on another run from Hartzell. Hart’s defense was able to shut down the 2-point attempt, something that proved costly for the Eagles.
“Our defense stepped up in those critical spots and we talked about it possibly coming down to 2-point conversions tonight,” Tanis said. “It was huge for us to get ours – especially in that first half. We made it a two-score game which was huge for us.”
Hart made a habit of answering Kent City’s long drives with huge chunk plays. Down 14-8, it took the Pirates just 14 seconds to find the end zone on their second offensive possession. That was thanks to senior quarterback Connor Edwards who exploded for a 71-yard touchdown run. Alex Hicks punched in the 2-point attempt to give Hart a 16-14 lead.
“To have Eman rip off that huge kickoff return and Connor to rip off a one play, 70-some yard touchdown, it was huge,” Tanis said. “Those kids are huge (for our program) and they’re great leaders. Connor has been running out of his mind the last couple of weeks. To see how hard our 150-, 155-pound kids run with the ball was really impressive.”
Kent City answered Edwards’s score with another long drive that ate up more than 10 minutes. Senior running back Joe Vanoffelen took the ball across for a 1-yard touchdown to put the Eagles on top 22-16.
With just under two minutes left to play, Hart hoped to go two-for-one with possession awaiting them to start the third quarter. Momentum started to shift for Hart as a series of penalties forced the Eagles to attempt a kickoff three times before Hart’s offense took over.
From that point, the Pirates mounted a methodical drive with the hurry-up offense in full effect. With just 13 seconds left before half, Edwards motioned Andaverde out to his left and a breakdown in Kent City’s secondary allowed him to catch the ball and waltz into the endzone untouched. Hart walked into the locker room up 24-22.
“They call it the middle eight in football. You want to score last right before half and prevent any scores, then score in the first four minutes (of the second half),” Tanis said. “We knew we were getting the ball back.”
The second half was dominated by Hart. The Pirates took just two minutes to find the endzone on their first possession of the second half as Andaverde ripped off a 50-yard touchdown jaunt.
With a 10-point lead, Hart’s defense began to wake up and put more pressure on the Eagles’ offense. That turned into two fumble recoveries by Andaverde, the first of which Edwards turned into a 33-yard touchdown run on offense.
Entering the fourth quarter, Hart was squarely in the driver’s seat, owning a 38-22 lead.
The game’s final stanza was highlighted by defensive football with each team forcing a turnover on downs. Hart drove the final nail into the coffin with 4:32 remaining as Edwards scored his third touchdown on the ground with a 40-yard dash to pay dirt.
Edwards led Hart on offense, taking 11 carries for 204 yards and three touchdowns while going 1-for-3 through the air for 13 yards and a touchdown. Andaverde had 117 yards on 15 carries for two touchdowns, adding one reception for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Joaquin Flores was the Pirates’ leading tackler with 15 while Ty Thomas finished with 13 tackles. Chase Gale (11 tackles) and Ivan Lara (10 tackles) also finished in double digits.
Hart had already made plenty of history heading into their first playoff game in program history after passing several benchmarks over the course of the year. The biggest thing the Pirates are celebrating now is a 1-0 record to start the school’s first postseason run.
“This is huge for our program and huge for our community,” Tanis said. “This community has had a lot of success in a lot of sports and football is kind of the last missing piece. To be able to bring this to our community is cool.”
Make no mistake, this is not the end of the road for Hart. They’ve heard the doubts surrounding the team and have one message to anyone who says they aren’t capable of continuing their success.
“All I have to say is have faith in us,” Andaverde said. “Believe in what we can do when we’re in a tough situation like today. We were down and (Kent City) was getting big plays on us, but we kept our heads up and got the job done. That’s what we do.”
The next hurdle for Hart (9-1) will be a road trip to Reed City for a matchup with the Coyotes (7-3). Reed City defeated Montague 41-13 in their first-round action.