Even with its top tailback sidelined for much of the game and its running attacked held in check for three quarters, the Hilton Head Christian Academy football team did what champions do on Friday night -- they found a way to win.
The Eagles began their quest for a third consecutive SCISAA Class 2-A state championship with a 43-28 home victory over Thomas Sumter Academy, and in the process earned the right to host Palmetto Christian, a 54-39 winner over Calhoun Academy, in a state semifinal next Friday night.
With its powerful ground game stalled, the Eagles turned to the passing game behind senior signal caller Brad Meccariello.
Meccariello threw a pair of long touchdown passes, including a critical 31-yard strike on a fourth-and-16 early in the second half to Nick Pirozzi, and kicker J.R. Moise connected on three field goals to lift the Eagles.
The Eagles played the final three quarters without star tailback Deo'Vonte Doe, who aggravated a sprained ankle on the first play of the second quarter and did not return.
It wasn't the way first-year coach Ryan Mitch envisioned the opening-round game playing out but he'll take the victory all the same.
"I thought we were up for the game and excited for the game," Mitch said. "We just came out and weren't physical up front and absolutely got beat up. It was just all around. I really don't know what it was. But Brad threw some great balls and our receivers made some nice catches and we were able to do enough to get the victory and advance."
The Eagles' defense was in control of the game from beginning to end. The Eagles allowed just one offensive touchdown through the first three quarters and forced a trio of turnovers that allowed them to overcome their offensive struggles.
Two of those turnovers came courtesy of Meccariello who intercepted quarterback Michal Hoge on Thomas Sumter's first two possessions of the game. Those picks resulted in 10 quick points, including a five-yard run by Doe late in the first quarter.
After Meccariello hit Barrett on a 38-yard strike early in the second quarter to push the lead to 16-0, it appeared the Eagles were on their way to a repeat of their 54-14 regular season drubbing of the Generals. But Thomas Sumter had no intention of a repeat beat down.
The Generals went on a 78-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a 34-yard pass play from Hoge to Cody Segura. Nine plays later, Jordan Adams would close the gap to 16-8 with a 4-yard scoring run.
The Thomas Sumter fireworks continued less than a minute later when the Generals' Kyle Decker forced a Meccariello fumble and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown that tightened the game to 16-14.
The Eagles responded with a 1-yard touchdown run from Reece Dolyniuk late in the second quarter, but that score did little to improve Mitch's frustration heading into the half.
"At halftime, we just challenged their manhood and urged them to come out and play more physical, to get after it," he said. "We had balls bouncing off of facemasks and bad pitches. We were just so out of sync in the first half."
Things did improve in the second half, however, as the Eagles scored 13 unanswered points, highlighted by Meccariello's 31-yard strike to Pirozzi, to push the lead to its largest margin of the night at 36-14.
The Generals managed a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but those efforts were offset by a 52-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Clark midway through the fourth quarter.
Hilton Head Christian should have Doe back next week. The Ridgeland-Hardeeville transfer originally injured the ankle in the regular-season finale and the plan was to limit his time on the field on Friday.
"Literally he was about three plays from being out," Mitch said. "But he'll be fine, he's good to go (next week). At that point he turned it but wanted to go back in and I just told him to ice it and he was done."
The Eagles will need a stronger performance next week if its' hopes for a three-peat are to be realized.
"We have to be more physical on the offensive line and the defensive line," Mitch said of the winning formula moving forward. "It's just the mentality we need to have. We aren't tough enough right now but we'll get back at it next week."
Hilton Head Christian Academy 43, Thoms Sumter Academy 28
HHC 0 13 10 10 -- 43
TS 0 14 0 14 -- 28
HHC--J.R. Moise 32 kick
HHC--Deo'Vonte Doe 5 run
HHC--Ryan Barrett 38 pass from Brad Meccariello (kick failed)
TS--Jordan Adams 4 run (Cody Segura pass from Michal Hoge)
TS--Kyle Decker 28 fumble return (run failed)
HHC--Reece Dolyniuk 1 run (Moise kick)
HHC--Nick Pirozzi 31 pass from Meccariello (Moise kick)
HHC--Moise 25 kick
HHC--Moise 30 kick
TS--Segura 42 pass from Hoge (Adams run)
HHC--Deangelo Clark 52 run (Moise kick)
TS--Stephen Reaves 10 run (pass failed)