High School Football

Shift of strategy paved way to success for Hilton Head Christian football

After 0-2 start to season, HHCA back in state title game

ccox@islandpacket.comNovember 22, 2013 

Hilton Head Christian Academy head coach Ryan Mitch calls a play during practice on Monday.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

Every Monday morning is exactly the same in the Hilton Head Christian Academy football offices.

Head coach Ryan Mitch arrives around 7:15, where defensive coordinator Smittie Cooler joins him. The two spend the next couple of hours going over the previous week's game, that Friday's opponent and anything else the pair can think of.

One Monday was more difficult than the rest. It was Sept. 9 and the Eagles were coming off a 17-point loss to Bible Baptist, dropping them to 0-2 under their first-year coach. Times were tough for a team that had won the SCISAA state championship the previous two seasons.

"After the first two games, a lot of people were just saying, "This a rebuilding year, you guys will get it figured out' and all that stuff," Mitch recalled. "I said, 'No, that's not the goal here.' My goal from the first time I met the team was to win the state championship."

The two decided that morning to ditch the systems they had each been successful with for so long. For Mitch, it meant going away from his up-tempo, spread offense. For Cooler, it meant finding new ways to make his defense thrive outside of his usual 50-front.

"Both of us just sat down after that second game and said, 'We've got to change,' " Mitch said. "We're not putting the guys in the best position to win the games. We don't have the guys to run what we want to run."

Slowly but surely, the coaches began to see positive changes. Hilton Head Christian only used four offensive plays the next week against Dorchester Academy yet managed to escape with a 29-28 victory.

The Eagles had shifted to the diamond formation, hoping to utilize their strength on the ground with running back Deo'Vonte Doe and quarterback Brad Meccariello. The defense would spend the next several weeks adjusting its schemes to whatever the upcoming opponent planned to run.

"I went away from something that I truly believe in as an offensive coach," Mitch said. "Cooler went away from a defense he truly believes in. Because we wanted this team to be successful."

The plan worked. Hilton Head Christian strung together nine consecutive victories, the last of which sealed its date in Saturday's SCISAA Class 2-A state title game in Benedict College's Charlie W. Johnson Stadium. The Eagles, despite all their early-season troubles, will take on Florence Christian School going for their third consecutive championship.

"That would be great," junior linebacker Luke Higgs said. "This is my first state championship game in anything. ... Three in a row, it's really special to these guys. These seniors would give anything to win that third."

Hilton Head Christian (9-2) will attempt to bring down a pair of talented backs that have guided Florence Christian to an 11-1 record. Gordon Washington and Alex James have combined for nearly 3,500 yards of total offense and 49 touchdowns.

"They want to pound it at you and try to muscle you," said Meccariello, who will double as both a quarterback and safety. " ... We've got to step up and hit them in the backfield before they get going."

Meccariello presents his own problems for the Florence Christian defense. The quarterback has teamed with Doe to rush for more than 2,700 yards this year and 37 touchdowns.

"Hopefully we can clog up some holes and make some tackles," Florence Christian coach Neil Minton said. "Their quarterback is the catalyst. He is a winner and leader.

" ... He is just a phenomenal kid, great athlete. He will do everything he can to will his team to win, and you can see that on film."

Florence Christian welcomes the challenge of taking down SCISAA's recent 2-A power. Minton will look to capture the school's first state championship in its first appearance Saturday against a team appearing in the final for the fifth straight year.

"You want to play against the best and those kids are the best," Minton said. "This is exactly what you want to play against. We want our program to be like what Hilton Head Christian has been. For us to do that, we've got to beat them."

Mitch and the Eagles are planning on their most physical game to date. They probably wouldn't have it any other way. The group's physicality was challenged by coaches following their slow start, which players responded with by going on the nine-game streak.

"We couldn't tackle, we couldn't block, we couldn't do any of that stuff," Mitch said. " ... So I said, 'The tone for this week and throughout the rest of the season is going to be physicality.'

"We're going to block in practice, we're going to tackle every practice. If we get people hurt, we get people hurt. But we can't win this way."

The Eagles are winning now. And all they need is one more victory to assure yet another state title.

Florence Christian (11-1) vs. Hilton Head Christian (9-2)

Time: Noon Saturday

Where: Charlie W. Johnson Stadium, Benedict College, Columbia

Last meeting: Hilton Head Christian 42, Florence Christian 26 (2012 SCISAA semifinals)

The buzz: The Eagles return to the SCISAA Class 2-A state championship for the fifth consecutive year and are going for their third straight title in a row. This is their first appearance under first-year coach Ryan Mitch, who has led Hilton Head Christian to nine consecutive victories following an 0-2 start. Florence Christian is making its first appearance in the state title game and is looking for some revenge against the Eagles, who have eliminated them from the postseason in two of the last three years.

The pick: Florence Christian 35, Hilton Head Christian 24

Players to watch

FLORENCE CHRISTIAN

Gordon Washington, RB: Washington has been the workhorse all season for the Eagles, as the tailback has amassed 2,358 yards on the ground to go along with 30 touchdowns. He is averaging 12.28 yards per carry and has fumbled just four times in 192 attempts.

Alex James, RB/WR: James has been the versatile threat the Eagles have needed this year. He has rushed for 637 yards and 10 touchdowns and led all Florence Christian receivers with 17 catches for 418 yards and nine scores. He's also added 35 tackles and three interceptions on a defense that gives up just 17.9 points per game.

Taylor Lee, DT: Lee has been a disruptive force along the line for Florence Christian, as the big No. 99 has racked up 117 tackles this season, including 26 for loss and 15 sacks. He's also forced and recovered three fumbles.

HILTON HEAD CHRISTIAN

Deo'Vonte Doe, RB: The senior transfer from Ridgeland-Hardeeville has given the Eagles quite a lift this season, as the tailback has led the team on the ground with 1,705 yards and 25 touchdowns. He's averaged over nine yards per carry and will carry the load when the game gets tight.

Brad Meccariello, QB/S: In his first season at quarterback, the senior has rushed for 1,051 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing for 930 yards and eight more scores. He will primarily run out of the Eagles' diamond and read option offense but keeps defenses honest on play-action passes. He has also added nine interceptions from his safety position.

Luke Higgs, LB: Higgs joined the Eagles in the fourth game of the year, where he led the team in tackles and notched an interception in a 48-41 win over Northwood Academy. He's averaged about 10 tackles per game, coach Ryan Mitch said, and has also blocked a punt and recovered a couple of fumbles.

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