EASTERN HANCOCK — Bone-chilling rain cut through the 42-degree air on Eastern Hancock’s football field Friday night. Fans bundled up in heavy jackets and umbrellas huddled close in the stands as the Royals went out to do battle against the 4-4 Lapel Bulldogs.
Just days before the game, Hancock County was enjoying balmy, record-high temperatures, a stark contrast to the sudden plummet to cold, wet conditions. That kind of unexpected twist is a factor any successful football team must learn to adjust to, Royals head coach Doug Armstrong said.
The Royals fell to the Bulldogs 27-12 Friday, their sixth defeat of the season. Eastern Hancock has some challenges to overcome on both sides of the ball if they want to correct course and take home a sectional championship, Armstrong said.
Players from both teams managed to get the shivering under control and adapt to the weather as the game progressed.
“That’s the great thing about football,” he said. “You play in all sorts of elements and you have to adapt to those situations.”
The Royals needed to play catch-up early after falling behind early in the first quarter. Lapel’s Cole Alexander launched a 35-yard pass to receiver Charlie Prough, setting a forward momentum that they’d maintain for the first half. Prough caught a 10-yard touchdown pass to put the Bulldogs on the board; after a missed extra point, the score read 6-0.
Despite a few successful rushing attacks powered by Royals running back Victor Olivo, Eastern Hancock struggled to move the ball up the field throughout the first and second quarters. After recovering a fumble — slippery with freezing rain — Lapel took control of the field once more.
Alexander blasted past Royals defenders for a 59-yard quarterback keeper. The Royals fumbled once more on the returning kickoff, and Lapel recovered it on Eastern’s 25 yard line. Within 8 seconds, they’d followed up with an immediate 25-yard touchdown pass to Conor Gill.
With 5 minutes left in the half, Lapel stuffed the Royals’ drives with each possession and added another 45-yard touchdown pass itself.
By the end of the half the score read 27-0, Bulldogs lead.
The Royals, the white on their uniforms turned brown by mud, grit their teeth and picked it up in the second half, Armstrong said. The Royals established better control of their defense, and with a few minor adjustments they were able to launch a few counters.
The Royals gained a boost of morale after a 69-yard touchdown run by Olivo early in the third quarter. In the fourth, Royals quarterback Houston Swan snuck by the line with a quarterback keeper, juked a defender and dove into the end zone to score, setting the board at 27-12.
After a failed onside kick recovery and a poorly-timed interception by Lapel’s Drew Reed, the Bulldogs smothered Eastern Hancock’s chance at a comeback at the end of the fourth and drove down the clock.
The challenges the Royals managed to overcome in the second half painted a picture of where they need to strengthen their game moving forward, Armstrong said.
“We didn’t turn the ball over, we had more opportunities, and we were able to use our quarterback to run a little more the second half,” Armstrong said. “With two backs in the backfield, it helped us move the ball downfield a little better.”
The back end of Eastern Hancock’s defense continually missed their assignments; those mistakes need to be corrected soon if they want to have a shot at taking home a sectional championship, their coach said.
As the players and crowd cleared off the field, eager to get out of the bitter cold, Armstrong offered final words to his team.
“We have a sectional game in front of us. It’s our sole purpose to win and advance to the second round,” Armstrong said. “Our sole purpose is to win our sectional game against Heritage Christian. We’ll reset our goals after that.”