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Royals blast Panthers, off to best start since 1998

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — A school record for points in a game. A share of the Mid-Indiana Football Conference championship. Regaining the Plowshare and Anvil Trophy.

Not a bad night, Eastern Hancock. Not bad at all.

The Class A No. 7 Royals (5-0, 4-0 MIFC) blanked rival Knightstown 65-0 Friday night at Ed Knarr Field by piling up 526 yards of offense and shutting out a Panther squad that had averaged nearly 39 points per game in five straight victories over EH.

With the triumph, the blue and white clinched at least a share of its first MIFC title — its initial league crown since claiming the White River Conference in 2006. Eastern Hancock can earn the outright championship by prevailing at North Decatur (2-3, 0-2 MIFC) Friday.

Third-year coach Pat Echeverria got over the .500 mark (14-13) with the win, and conceded it could’ve been the best game the Royals have played under his watch.

“Other than a couple of hiccups in the first half — a couple penalties and turnovers — I thought we played a pretty complete game,” he said. “The defense played unbelievable and stuffed two great running backs. On offense, we have some great athletes and an offensive line that’s willing to get after it and block.

“We had a lot of kids contribute and make big plays for us tonight.”

Eastern Hancock left no doubt from the opening whistle.

Derrik Noel returned the opening kickoff 45 yards to the Knightstown 30.

Two plays later, Austin Smith scored on a 19-yard reverse, and after a failed 2-point conversion, the hosts led 6-0.

The Royals then caught the Panthers off-guard with an onside kick, which was recovered by kicker Cooper Henderson.

EH picked up a first down, but penalties backed it up to a 3rd-and-25 from its own 48.

No matter.

QB Logan Splater lofted a pass 30 yards downfield to Noel, who out-jumped a Knightstown defender, then scampered into the end zone for a 52-yard pass-and-catch TD.

On the ensuing kickoff, EH again went the way of the onside kick, and this time Andy Riley recovered the ball for the Royals.

Four plays later, running back Spencer Gilbert punched in the first of his four rushing touchdowns from 16 yards out. The score was set up by a 41-yard burst from Henderson.

With seven minutes and 54 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, Eastern Hancock led 20-0.

Four minutes later, Gilbert scored from 14 yards out after the teams traded lost fumbles. EH recovered its third straight onside kick, but the drive ended when Splater’s pass was deflected and intercepted near the goal line.

At the end of the first 12 minutes of play, the Royals were ahead 28-0.

“It really got us going,” senior Hunter Knopp said of his team’s quick start. “It pretty much gave us the win.”

The onside kicks — much like the multiple 2-point formations — provide opponents with another variable they must prepare for when facing Echeverria’s skilled squad.

“It’s just part of what we do. If we think it’s there and we think we have the opportunity to get it, we want to shut them down. If we have the ball, they’re not going to score,” he said. “We want to keep the ball as much as we can. That’s what why we go for it on the 3rd-and-longs and 4th-and-longs. It’s just part of what we do.”

Knopp, who ran in a trio of 2-point conversions and spearheaded the defensive effort from his linebacker spot, noted that Henderson’s improvement as a kicker allows for the onside kick strategy.

“We practice it a lot,” Knopp said. “Cooper’s getting pretty good at it.”

Knightstown kept possession for most of the second quarter, but the Eastern Hancock defense forced a pair of turnover on downs, including one where the Panthers’ drive started on the EH 10.

On the first play after the second stop, Gilbert sprinted and juked his way through the Knightstown defense for a 90-yard touchdown. It was one of only two plays the Royal offense ran in the second quarter.

At intermission, Eastern Hancock led 35-0 and had outgained Knightstown (3-2, 2-2 MIFC) 300-87.

In the third quarter, Splater (67 yards), Gilbert (65) and Henderson (37) added long TD runs while the Royal defense tightened its grip over its rivals.

EH limited the Panthers to 2.6 yards per carry and held the visitors to 141 yards — 89 below the threshold Knopp said the defense set for itself before the game. Knopp and his cohorts also notched the program’s first shutout since Aug. 26, 2005.

Offensively, there were multiple stars. Gilbert racked up 209 yards and an impressive 26 yards per carry average. Splater accounted for 74 yards on the ground, 79 through the air and a pair of TDs. Henderson totaled 151 yards of offense and two scores.

“It feels good,” Knopp said. “It feels good to finally put our team together and play 48 minutes of football.”

The previous program record for points in a game occurred on Oct. 20, 2006, when the Royals hung 64 on Union City in a sectional quarterfinal tilt.

Echeverria’s unit is off to best start an Eastern Hancock team has enjoyed in 15 years. The 1998 Royals began 8-0, and if the current edition reaches 6-0, they’ll earn the outright MIFC title.

Knopp doesn’t plan on sharing that trophy.

“We don’t like to tie,” he said.

Notes: Knightstown faces 2A No. 9 Shenandoah (5-0) next week. The Royals visit the Raiders in Week 8. … This was the third straight week EH has ended a losing streak of at least five games to an opponent. The Royals snapped droughts to Indian Creek (seven games) and Milan (five) in Weeks 3 and 4. … Kevin Miller is in his first season as coach at Knightstown. … Eastern Hancock was whistled for 10 penalties. … The Panthers fumbled nine times, recovering six.

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