Senior quarterback Brad Meccariello patiently waited three years for his opportunity to assume the reigns of the Hilton Head Christian Academy offense on a full-time basis. On Friday night, that wait paid huge dividends for the signal-caller and the Eagles.
Meccariello accounted for more than 300 yards of total offense and a pair of scores to lead the Christian Academy to a thrilling 48-41 victory over visiting Northwood Academy in the teams' SCISAA Region 2-AA opener on Hilton Head Island.
Meccariello, who rushed for 242 yards and also threw a huge 80-yard touchdown pass to junior DeAngelo Clark late in the first half, has been with the Eagles since his freshman year, playing numerous roles during runs to region and state titles.
This season, however, the senior isn't just the Eagles' starting quarterback; he's their clear leader as they look to defend their Class 2-A state championship.
"You can lead from any position, and I feel like I've been a leader on this team since my sophomore year," Meccariello said. "But this is my senior year; it's time to leave it all out there, because this is it for me."
While the senior certainly led the way, he was only part of a powerful ground game that absolutely dominated a gutsy but overmatched Chargers defense that simply struggled to get the Christian Academy (2-2, 1-0) off the field all night.
In addition to his 80-yard reception, Clark added 137 yards rushing and a second-half touchdown run that gave the Eagles a 14-point lead early in the third quarter. Last week's star, Deo'Vonte Doe, also rushed for more than 100 yards and added two touchdowns runs despite missing a good bit of the second half due to a nagging leg injury.
All told, the Eagles rushed for more than 500 yards, scored five of their six scores on the ground and never had a scoring drive take more than 10 plays. It was the exact performance first-year coach Ryan Mitch was looking for from the Eagles, who have won two straight games after opening the season with a pair of losses.
"After the first two weeks we made a decision to change things up and become a more physical team," Mitch said. "We were more finesse in those losses, but we knew we had multiple guys who could run the ball and a line that could block, so we decided to go more physical. It paid off tonight."
Despite imposing their offensive will, this victory was anything but easy for the Eagles. In fact, with seconds left in the third quarter, the Christian Academy was clinging to a slim 35-34 led with the Chargers driving toward midfield.
That's when Meccariello turned in the defensive play of the game to complement his determined offensive showing. The defensive back intercepted a pass from Northwood quarterback Will Lloyd to give the Eagles the ball at the Chargers 31-yard line to open the fourth quarter. Five plays later, Meccariello took the ball in from the 5-yard line to push the lead to eight.
Four plays into its next drive, Lloyd was again picked off, this time by Eagles linebacker Luke Higgs, who made a great catch of a tipped ball at the Chargers' 48.
Several minutes later, bruising fullback Reece Dolyniuk added his second touchdown of the game from 5 yards out to push the Eagles' lead to 14 points after the extra point was blocked.
"We told the guys this week that we needed to protect our home field, and we did that tonight against a very talented football team," Mitch said. "The region has gotten a lot better the past couple of years and we're going to have to work hard to stay at the top."
Indeed, the visiting Chargers were game from the very start, utilizing a more balanced attack behind the passing and running of Lloyd to score six touchdowns of their own, including the first of the game.
The Eagles quickly erased that 7-0 deficit with two scoring drives of their own in the first quarter, but Northwood again pushed back ahead with a touchdown late in the first quarter and then another early in the second.
That 21-14 lead would be its last, however, as the Eagles closed the half with two scores, including the 80-yard pitch and catch between Meccariello and Clark, which ironically came on one of only two passes the Christian Academy attempted all evening.
"That was a big play for us because it gave us the lead heading into the half," Mitch said. "We saw something in their defense and decided to take a shot. It gave us a lot of momentum."
That's exactly what the Eagles have as they ride consecutive wins into a bye week. Yet as Mitch well knows, things are only going to get tougher from here on out for the defending state champions.
Hilton Head Christian Academy 48, Northwood Academy 41
NA 14 7 13 7 -- 41
HHCA 14 14 7 13 -- 48
NA--Will Lloyd 14 run (Andrew Singer kick)
HHC--Reece Dolyniuk 1 run (J.R. Moise kick)
HHC--Deo'Vonte Doe 2 run (Moise kick)
NA--Chris Williams 1 run (Singer kick)
NA--Trevor McNeil 9 run (Singer kick)
HHC--Doe 3 run (Moise kick)
HHC--Deangelo Clark 80 pass from Brad Meccariello (Moise kick)
HHC--Clark 1 run (Moise kick)
NA--Drayton 20 run (Singer kick)
NA--McNeil 10 run (kick failed)
HHC--Meccariello 5 run (Moise kick)
HHC--Dolyniuk 5 run (kick failed)
NA--Drayton 3 run (Singer kick)