By Rick Peterson Jr – KSHSAA Covered
KENSINGTON – If there were any questions whether a lack of size would be a hindrance for Hill City, the Ringnecks may have put that to rest Friday night at Thunder Ridge.
Eager to see how it stacked up against a physical Longhorn team, Hill City’s speed and playmaking ability showed up on both sides of the ball in a 48-22 win.
The Ringnecks, who have just two players listed over 200 pounds on their roster, helped keep the Longhorns’ power run game in check for most of the night.
“You don’t have to be big to be good in football,” Hill City coach Travis Desbien said. “I think we proved you don’t have to have 200-pound horses everywhere, you just have to have good football players. I was extremely proud of how our defense played, because they play big, and that’s what you can ask for.
“You can’t make them grow bigger, but you can ask them to play hard, and that’s what we got.”
Thunder Ridge looked to set the tone on the game’s first possession with an 18-play drive capped off by a 1-yard TD from quarterback Dylan Bice.
But the Ringnecks (3-0), top-ranked in Eight-Player Division I by KSHSAA Covered, needed just two plays and 15 seconds to answer, knotting it up with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Aiden Amrein to Kaleb Atkins to start a run of 20 unanswered points. Thunder Ridge, which entered the game ranked No. 3 Eight-Player Division II, wouldn’t score again until late in the third quarter.
“Thunder Ridge is a team that has an identity and they know that,” Desbien said. “The coaches know they have an identity and that’s power football. We knew that if we could take them out of their game plan we would have a pretty good chance of beating them. We felt like we had a really good game plan offensively and we were able to do some nice things.
“Our defense showed up big. We stopped what they do best. They had to resort to passing, and that worked out in our favor.”
Hill City flowed well to the ball all night. Five Ringnecks recorded double-digit tackles – Conner Dinkel (17), Trent Long (17), Dayton Stephen (15), Sylar Rohr (15) and Atkins (11). Rohr and Atkins each had an interception.
“Our two-man front allows us to have a lot of athletes lined up in the secondary and at the linebacker position, which keeps the big guys off of them,” Desbien said. “The two guys in the middle, their job is to be disruptive and keep our linebackers clean. When athletes can be athletes, we’re usually doing pretty well on the scoreboard.”
“We’re a disciplined defense. We put a lot of effort in practice to be able to shut these explosive offenses down,” junior linebacker/running back Jaden Nuss said.
Hill City took the lead for good early in the second quarter after Amrein broke a tackle and found a wide-open Nuss for a 65-yard TD. After taking a 14-6 lead into halftime, Hill City went up 14 after Amrein and Nuss connected again for a 25-yard TD.
Nuss had 90 yards receiving and two touchdowns while also rushing for 75 yards and one TD. Atkins finished with 94 yards rushing and accounted for three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving. Amrein threw for 105 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 62 yards and a score.
“It’s amazing knowing we’ve got multiple guys on the field that can make very explosive and great plays,” Nuss said. “You don’t rely on one guy. We’re a family and we rely on each other and try to make things happen.”
Bice rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns but the senior quarterback was ejected with 11:07 left in the game following an altercation with a Hill City player in the end zone after the Ringnecks went up 28-14.
Mason Baker then took over quarterback duties for Thunder Ridge. He broke off some big runs and finished with 98 yards and a TD on just seven carries.
“We were digging there at the end,” Thunder Ridge coach Joel Struckhoff said. “You lose your best player, it’s hard. Mason came in and filled the spot very well. I felt like he ran our offense pretty well. We were kind of scrambling for what we were going to do because we were shorthanded. He did a good job of just getting something figured out.”
Thunder Ridge (2-1) will open district play at Logan/Palco on Friday.
“I think we’ve got a lot we can learn from this,” Struckhoff said. “I think we definitely needed this. This was something that is just going to make us better because we’ve got a lot of stuff to pick apart and dissect and look at what we did right and what we did wrong.
“(Hill City) is a very good football team, probably one of the top three in Division I in my opinion. They’ve got a lot of weapons and they’re really good all the way around.”
The Ringnecks will start district play at home against Rawlins County on Friday.
“Beating (Thunder Ridge), with how good they are how explosive they are, it’s a huge confidence boost,” Nuss said. “We want to make something happen this season and we truly believe we can do it.”