CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the first time in six years, players were chanting, coaches were hugging and fans were high-fiving after an Eastern Hancock playoff game.
In one of the biggest upsets across the state Friday night, the Royals outplayed previously unbeaten Class A No. 5 Hagerstown from the opening whistle, prevailing 42-14 in the opening round of Sectional 37 play in Charlottesville.
The jovial postgame atmosphere was the scene Pat Echeverria envisioned when he took the EH coaching job before the 2011 season.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of the guys.”
Next Friday, Eastern Hancock (5-5) will travel to Northeastern (6-4), which defeated Tri (0-10) 22-0 Friday night. It will be EH’s first trip to the sectional semifinals since 2006, the year of the blue-and-white’s last sectional crown and also the program’s most recent postseason victory prior to Friday night.
During his team’s Wednesday practice before playing Edinburgh last week, Echeverria noticed a change in his team’s attitude.
“All of the sudden I felt like a light bulb came across all our kids’ heads,” he said. “They started to figure out not only what they were supposed to do, but why they were doing it.”
The Royals seemed to forget their respective heads to begin the game.
EH received the ball first and went three-and-out, doubling the bad start with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.
Hagerstown (9-1), boasting Class A’s sixth-highest scoring offense (41.4 points per game), took over in Royal territory and scored in six plays, with the last being a 4-yard run by quarterback Cole Bartlett, who rushed and passed for over 1,000 yards this season.
But EH kept its cool, moving methodically down the field until running back Spencer Gilbert announced his arrival.
The junior took a handoff from quarterback Logan Splater and scampered 57 yards up the home sideline for a touchdown, outrunning and stiff-arming any defender in his path.
Eastern Hancock senior lineman Jake Hicks recovered a Hagerstown fumble on the next drive, and four plays later Splater kept the ball on a zone read and found paydirt from 10 yards out, supplying the home team with a 14-7 lead.
Cooper Henderson caught the Tigers off-guard with a well-placed pooch kickoff, and the ball was recovered by EH’s Hunter Knopp on the visitors’ 33.
“We were trying to keep it away from their weapons,” offered Echeverria, now 8-12 at EH. “I saw an opening and Cooper put a great kick on there and our kid recovered the ball.”
The Royals would not let the opportunity slip away.
Facing a third-and-seven, Splater completed a nearly-intercepted swing pass to Gilbert, who was finally brought down at the Tiger 1. Gilbert plunged in from a yard out for his second touchdown, and EH was off to a surprising 21-7 start.
“Coming into the game, we knew we had them,” Hicks explained. “We had played a great schedule (second-toughest in Sectional 37) and we knew that was going to prepare us.”
After recovering another Hagerstown fumble — this time deep in its own territory — Eastern Hancock seem primed to blow the game wide open, but Henderson’s halfback pass was intercepted by Bartlett in the end zone.
The Tigers quickly picked up 46 yards to the Royal 34, but Bartlett’s pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-seven.
However, Hagerstown would block a punt to set up good field position, and Steven Glover’s one-yard run closed EH’s lead to 21-14.
But before momentum had a chance to change hands, Gilbert took the kickoff and sprinted 81 yards through the Tiger coverage and midfield mud pit before being dragged down on the Tiger 9.
“I just hit holes. I just run, it comes naturally,” said Gilbert, who rushed for 142 yards on the night, boosting his Hancock-County leading total to 1,405. “I got blockers, and I can also break a few tackles.”
Splater tallied his second touchdown run of the night on the next snap, and the halftime score was 28-14 in favor of the Royals.
The Royal defense again stood tall on fourth down to begin the third quarter, holding Bartlett a yard short on fourth-and-13.
Splater directed the EH offense down the field, where they delivered their own fourth-down fireworks.
On fourth-and-three from the Hagerstown 20, Splater found Austin Smith in the back of the end zone for his 17th TD pass of the season.
Eastern Hancock would add two more fourth-down stops and another Gilbert touchdown run — a one-yarder in the fourth quarter — before the clock ran out.
The Royals outgained the vaunted Tiger offense 382-314, with Gilbert (171 total yards, three touchdowns) and Splater (89 rush yards, 75 pass yards, three total TDs) doing most of the damage.
Hagerstown had not been limited to less than 21 points all season, and its defense had not surrendered more than 32 points in a game, including limiting each of its last six opponents to single digits.
“We played a whole game. That’s what we’ve been lacking. We knew they’ve come back before, so it was nothing they hadn’t seen,” Hicks said. “We kept our minds focused and finished strong.”
Echeverria encouraged his players to savor their historic triumph Friday night, but instructed them to come ready to watch film bright and early today.
The last time Eastern Hancock faced Northeastern was Oct. 19, 2007, or five years ago Friday night. The Knights bested the Royals 20-6 in the first round of sectionals.
“You got to soak it in, but you got to find the balance of getting ready for the next week,” Hicks said. “We can’t live it up too much because it’s one-game seasons and if you lose, you’re done.”
Gilbert, fully aware of the meaning of his team’s win, was at a loss for words.
“I don’t even know what to say right now. This is crazy. I never dreamed beating this 9-0 team,” Gilbert offered. “I knew we had the players to do it, but I’m speechless. I really am.”
Eastern Hancock 42, Hagerstown 14
HT (9-1) 7 7 0 0 — 14
EH (5-5) 21 7 7 7 — 42
HT — Bartlett, 4-yard run (Bartlett kick), 8:59
EH — Gilbert, 57-yard run (Henderson kick), 6:13
EH — Splater, 10-yard run (kick failed), 4:26
EH — Gilbert, 1-yard run (Henderson run), 5:25
HT — Glover, 1-yard run (Bartlett kick), 1:34
EH — Splater, 9-yard run (Henderson kick), 1:11
EH — Smith, 20-yard pass from Splater (Henderson kick), 3:31
EH — Gilbert, 1-yard run (Henderson kick), 9:40
First downs 18 20
Rushes-yards 30-222 45-297
Passing yards 92 85
Comp-Att-Int 11-17-0 6-10-1
Fumbles-Lost 3-2 1-1
Penalties-Yards 7-51 4-40
Rushing: Bartlett 21-147, Glover 2-9, Bradway 4-38, Charles 2-21, Matthews 1-7 (HT); Gilbert 21-142, Henderson 12-65, Splater 11-89, Spegal 1-1 (EH)
Passing: Bartlett 12-17-128 (HT); Splater 6-9-75, Henderson 0-1-0 (EH)
Receiving: Bradway 4-26, Funkhauser 2-35, Matthews 4-50, Charles 2-17 (HT); Gilbert 1-29, Smith 3-27, Noel 1-9, Henderson 1-10 (EH)