Jaxin Patterson

Hillsboro running back Jaxin Patterson looks for running room against De Soto in an MAFC Red game last fall. Patterson scored 15 touchdowns as a freshman.

There’s not much for the Hawks to remember about that opening-night home game against Sullivan except they were shut out 6-0 and Jaxin Patterson slogged his way for 26 yards.

It’s rare for a freshman to be given the opportunity to be the main ball carrier for a varsity team, but by the end of the season, Patterson was not only the fulcrum of the Hillsboro offense, he landed on the Mississippi Area Football Conference Red Division’s first team at running back after rushing 272 times for 1,364 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Belying his age (14), Patterson was the heavy in the Hawks’ triple-option offense that threw the ball only 37 times all season. Patterson could run straight at a defense and always seemed to be going downhill. He was very effective in short-yardage situations, scoring eight touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line or closer. But he could also tear off long TD runs, like he did against North County, when he scored from 60, 44, 24 and 25 yards and piled up a season-high 241 yards on the ground.

Against Sikeston, in the opening round of the Class 4 District 1 tournament, Patterson was handed the ball 44 times, a season high.

His durability, along with a supporting cast of freshman Austin Romaine (39 carries, 219 yards, 2 TDs), sophomore John Bennett (109-474, 2 TDs) and junior Dylan Dace (team-leading 121-846, 12 TDs in 2018), gives the Hawks the type of backfield that could help it in the next few years win district championships and challenge beyond.

Dace was injured during the jamboree in August and didn’t play a down this fall. His senior leadership next year could make the Hawks as deadly as they were in 2017, when they reached the state quarterfinals.

Lee Freeman, Hillsboro’s head coach and the MAFC Red coach of the year for the second time in three seasons, said Patterson’s arrival was something he didn’t see coming.

“There’s nothing comparable to what he accomplished,” Freeman said. “There are a lot of factors that play into that. From Jaxin’s standpoint, he’s a self-aware young man. His maturity is way greater than most freshmen. His physical ability speaks for itself. One of the factors that play into his success is having an offensive line that can compete and create holes. Our coaches who coach the running backs and line put him in the best spot to put him in place for that success.”

With such a busy freshman year, will Freeman have to put a governor on Patterson over a minimum of 30 more high school games?

“As long as he’s healthy and able to perform, if the opportunity is there, he’ll carry the ball,” Freeman said. “We’ll have Dylan back. I’m encouraged by our backfield. There’s a lot of strengths each one of those guys bring. Dace was greatly missed from a leadership standpoint. If both are healthy, you have opportunity to have two 1,000-yard backs.”

As good as Patterson was, the Hawks finished with a record of 4-7 after being hammered in Cape Girardeau 48-8 by Central in the district semifinals. Counting the Sullivan game, Hillsboro was shut out three times. But the Hawks beat

De Soto and won the tiebreaker for the league championship.

Here is a look at the county’s first-team selections on offense and defense.

Opening holes for the Hawks were sophomore Jordan Jarvis and senior John Moseley. Jarvis, 6-4, 260, played left tackle all year and Freeman said he got better after each game. He lined up next to Moseley at left guard.

“John is more of a vocal leader on the team,” Freeman said. “Having a young guy like Jordan is encouraging because you’ve got two more years with him. Our guards need to pull a lot so they have to be more agile for sweeps or power plays inside. They have to be physical and quick off the ball. John possessed all of those skills.”

Moseley doubled up at first team at linebacker after making 42 solo tackles. Freeman said he doesn’t put much credence on assisted tackles.

“Any of his tackles listed in the stats are solo,” Freeman said. “We don’t include assists in the total number. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but I want them to be a realistic number I can show a college coach.”

Junior end Zach McNees had five sacks and 21 tackles for a loss. McNees is a two-year starter who played at a high level as a sophomore with eight tackles behind the line.

“That’s the nature of the position,” Freeman said. “We ask more of those type of things from our guys on the line. With (run-pass options) and things we see, the linebackers are taken out of those plays. Zach’s ability to catch backs on the backside is what makes him dangerous. If you run at him, you have to handle his strength. He’s physical wherever he plays.”

Senior Austin Perez took over at quarterback early in the season, but it was his play at safety for the Hawks that earned him a spot on the first team. Perez, who was honorable mention at QB, scored four TDs on the ground at QB and made 23 tackles.

“We didn’t know how to utilize him at first,” Freeman said. “He had played cornerback and we needed a physical kid at safety and he was mentally capable of handling the structure of our defense and providing run support.”

Not many prep athletes play two sports in the same season. Fewer still are selected to all-conference teams in both. Senior Mark Moore was the player of the year in the Jefferson County Activities Association for Hillsboro’s soccer team and he gobbled up first team honors at kicker and special teams on the gridiron. He made field goals of 28 and 33 yards and his kickoffs helped hem in the opposition with a 47-yard average.

“In high school, if you can get a team to start inside its 20, there’s about an 80 percent chance they won’t score,” Freeman said. “He was very consistent and has outstanding character. His soccer credentials are the same. He’s athletic, intelligent and we were fortunate to have him.”

Freeman said he was humbled by the recognition by the league’s coaches voting for his honor.

“Any recognition in this job is good,” Freeman said. “From a competition standpoint, you always respect your opponents in the conference. The last two years we’ve had our hands full with those teams. The teams in the conference are getting better and it’s so much more than wins and losses. Schematics, plays and a wide variety of things make it challenging (to win conference games). Most teams are run-based and that’s a little different than you see outside of the conference, but that’s a good thing. A ground game breeds a different kind of kid.”

De Soto’s Briar Fischer has tossed 32 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, and after throwing for 1,780 yards and 15 TDs and 126 yards on the ground, he was named the conference first-team quarterback and its Offensive Player of the Year.

Playing with mostly an inexperienced corps of receivers, Fischer had as many interceptions (15) as passing scores this fall. De Soto head coach Chris Johnson said the Dragons also dropped a lot of Fischer’s passes.

“He’s a great leader. He’s a fantastic kid to lead you on offense,” Johnson said. “He was really the lone skill position player we brought back. He wasn’t dealing with multiple seniors on offense. He had to be the catalyst for what we did. There was a lot put on him to be the voice to calm everybody down. His stats aren’t really what he wanted, but when you wrap it all together, he probably had eight touchdowns dropped this year.”

Every team needs a “Swiss army knife” and De Soto had senior Kameren Brooks, the league’s top slash player. Brooks lined up many places on offense, but Johnson liked using him in the H-back position, which is a glorified fullback. Brooks rushed for 120 yards and three TDs and caught 23 passes for 333 yards and backed up Fischer at QB.

“He has very good hands for a second or third wide receiver,” Johnson said. “He could block or carry the ball. He played running back for a couple of games as a true tailback. He knew the offense as well as anyone.”

Lamont Allen and Clayton Snudden gave the Dragons two of their most dangerous receivers in years. Junior Levi Fischer, Briar’s younger brother, hopes to be considered in the same class by the end of his senior year. Levi had 24 catches for 303 yards and three TDs.

“He’s got a higher ceiling than Snudden,” Johnson said. “Snudden had such great confidence in his hands, he was never denied the football. Levi’s got top-end speed, vertical ability and is a few inches taller than Clayton. He showed flashes of being a remarkable weapon. But then he’d drop a ball and was thinking too much. I hope this season was a great learning experience for him.”

For the second straight year, senior Landon Porter was voted onto the first team at offensive line. Porter also was chosen tops in the league on the D-line. The three-time JCAA wrestling champion never missed a football game over three years. He played center and guard this season.

“A lot of our mistakes weren’t from the line in terms of not knowing what to do,” Johnson said. “Maybe the player across from us was a little faster or better, but they all knew what to do. Landon could make all of the checks and knew what we were doing with the ball.”

When two-time all-league defensive lineman Wyatt Moser decided not to play this season, Porter drew more attention on the interior.

“When you started game planning for us, most offenses knew where Wyatt was,” Johnson said. “Landon merited that same respect. If you didn’t, he could get into your backfield.”

Standing 6-5, 290-pound senior tackle Mitchell Appleton started to draw interest from Division I colleges by year’s end. Appleton moved up the charts from not being honorable mention in 2018 to the first team.

“His offseason was really on display. He’s always been a taller kid,” Johnson said. “As a sophomore he was undersized, but by his junior year he started putting on weight and did the lifting, O-line drills, steps, hand placements and pad drills. He understood where his deficiencies were and worked hard to correct those.”

In the mold of Dominic DeMarco, a two-time first teamer for the Dragons, junior Will Rector took his place at linebacker and turned in a first-team performance with 106 total tackles, five for a loss and a fumble recovery. Johnson said Rector didn’t start the season that way, but after a heart-to-heart conversation, Rector’s performance took off.

“To start the season, Will was not playing up to our expectations, but we had some meetings and told him ‘If you don’t improve, we’ll have to find someone to take your spot,’” Johnson said. “He was wide-eyed early, but from about Week 3 on he had a great year. He started to play downfield. By the end of the year, he was our best defensive player.”

It’s pronounced “rising.” Junior Ethan Reissing might have his name mispronounced, but his play this year at defensive back spoke volumes for the De Soto first teamer who had 61 tackles, three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Reissing overcame an offseason knee injury and after being a little timid in camp, he showed the type of instincts crucial for the position.

“As a sophomore, if he had more weight, he could have played more, but we had Snudden at  starting free safety,” Johnson said. “He (Reissing) was behind when camp started. Once the season got going, he gained confidence. He could sense things that led to interceptions.”

Keeping the ball away from dangerous punt returners was Johnson’s main goal for junior Dominic Punjani, who made the first team at punter after averaging 40 yards per boot. “Unfortunately there’s times we throw it around more than other teams in the county, but we’re asking him to make sure we don’t give up big returns,” Johnson said. “At the high school level, you put your best player back on punt returns. Dominic did a great job with that. We changed punting strategies and he understood that. When you don’t have a good punter, you feel it very quickly.”

Two weeks into the season, Windsor had wins over St. Pius X and Seckman and junior quarterback Derek Williams was playing well enough to make a case for conference MVP. But Williams was banged up against De Soto in Week 3 and was lost for the season the next week when he broke a leg against Park Hills Central.

Without their rising star, the Owls slid into the abyss of a 3-7 campaign.

“He’s a special player,” Windsor head coach Alex DeMatteis said. “The timing (of the injury) was awful and I feel bad for everybody involved.”

Despite the loss of Williams, several Windsor players had outstanding seasons and senior Seif Elkhashab was named the Defensive Player of the Year for his play on the line. He led the Owls with 79 tackles and five sacks.

“I believe he deserves that through and through,” DeMatteis said of the defensive award. “He played a little linebacker at the end of the year out of need. He’s not a huge guy (6-0, 195) but he was very productive. He’s a tremendous athlete and is deceptively strong.”

The other defensive player on the first team for the Owls was senior Julian Ulmer, who started the season at cornerback, was moved to free safety after Williams’ injury and had 34 tackles and two picks. Ulmer didn’t play football in 2018.

“He was solid back there. He’s one of our fastest guys,” DeMatteis said.

With Williams under center, Windsor passed 65 times in its first three games. There’s no doubt that first team junior receiver Mike Wolcott would have greatly benefitted numbers-wise had he played a whole season with Williams. Wolcott led the Owls with 19 catches for 185 yards and two TDs.

“He’s a pretty small guy. I tell our guys all the time if you want to know how to work in practice, you should model yourself after Mike,” DeMatteis said. “He earns everything he gets out there. He’s deceptively quick. We like to get him the ball on quick patterns and get him in space.”

Playing fullback and inside linebacker takes a special kind of football player. Whether it was shedding blockers, making tackles or plowing into a pile of linemen for a yard or two, Festus senior Jack Robinson was perfect for those jobs.

In the last two years, Robinson rushed 270 times for 1,670 yards. He made 180 tackles in that time. Coaches in the conference this year decided Robinson was their most valuable player.

Russ Schmidt, who resigned as the Tigers’ football coach after the season, said he knew what kind of player he had. Robinson was named to the first team at both positions.

“He was on the field about every play and gave us 100 percent,” Schmidt said. “You had to prepare for him at fullback and linebacker. You had to account for him. He’s a leader. He was a stalwart on both sides of the ball. Look at the history of those two positions, they go hand in hand. You have to be able to inflict punishment on both sides of the ball.”

Junior Judson Holland was picked for the first team for his play as the Tigers’ center, which Schmidt said is the most important position on offense. Schmidt said Holland, who’s been starting since his freshman year, is a true five-tool player because he lined up at all five positions on the O-line.

“He played them all pretty well,” Schmidt said. “He never complained about changing positions to make us a better team. He and Jack are 365 (days a year players).”

With three interceptions and 44 tackles, junior Cayse Martin was named to the first team defensive backfield for the Tigers, who were 5-6 this year.

“He’s very quiet, but he goes about his work in practice,” Schmidt said. “You have to force him out of the game. He’s smart and cerebral. You can tell he’s always processing a coach’s comments.”

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