For the first time since 2006, Hill-Murray is a conference/subdistrict champion.
The Pioneers claimed that honor all to themselves Friday by downing the South St. Paul 35-14 at Ettinger Field in South St. Paul to clinch the Skyway-Gold subdistrict title outright.
Hill-Murray’s conference title in 2006 was a shared Classic Suburban Conference crown, split with St. Thomas Academy. This is the Pioneers’ first outright title in more than 20 years.
Junior running back and defensive lineman Xavier Daniels said that feat means “a lot.”
“We’ve been working all summer in general to get to this point,” he said.
The response from coach Rob Reeves was a little different.
“We won it?” he asked.
You did indeed. Hill-Murray finished 3-0 in subdistrict play, one game better than Simley — the defending Class 4A champion, which bested North St. Paul 39-14 on Friday. The Pioneers topped the Spartans 14-7 last month. Program history is always significant, but Reeves insinuated the Pioneers aren’t overly focused on regular-season accolades.
“Nobody has thought about that, because really, at the end of the day, it’s the section championship that you’re shooting for,” Reeve said. “We’ve got a group right now that’s focused on being 1-0 each week. It’s what we talk about — who’s next? (Being) 1-0.”
Friday’s victory marked four straight 1-0 weeks for Hill-Murray (4-2) after an 0-2 start to the season. But those two losses came to Becker and St. Agnes — both of whom are currently 6-0. Plus, Reeves noted Hill-Murray was a little banged up early in the year.
“As this thing has gone on, we’re starting to get everybody back,” he said. “So this team is starting to find their groove a little bit.”
That’s what it looked like Friday.
Hill-Murray got the scoring started with a 32-yard scoring strike from Jackson Reeves to Gavin Berg in the first frame. That pass came off of play-action. South St. Paul (2-4) had no choice but to honor the run fake given how effective the Pioneers (4-2) were on the ground all evening.
Hill-Murray ran 40 times for 317 yards.
The Pioneers flashed a physicality that paired beautifully with their explosive playmakers.
Daniels set the tone. He was a punishing running back in Hill-Murray’s backfield — running 15 times for 124 yards — while also creating havoc on the other side of the ball. Daniels delivered a strip sack that ended a South St. Paul second-quarter drive.
Turnovers were the story of the contest. South St. Paul turned the ball over on downs at the Hill-Murray 12-yard line in the first quarter. But on the very next play, Elonzo Simmons returned an interception to the end zone to cut the Packers’ deficit to 7-6.
“Every year we play these guys, South St. Paul is a proud program. They’re tough kids. And we just prep them all week — you’re going to be in a street fight, it’s never going to be pretty,” Reeves said. “It’s always going to be just kind of a biting-through-your-mouthguard mentality where you’ve got to grind and keep fighting.”
It was a South St. Paul giveaway in the third that truly turned the game’s tide. Trailing 14-6, the Packers (2-4) were in the midst of a lengthy drive and had the ball inside the Pioneers’ 10-yard line. The Packers successfully ran the ball in spurts Friday, led by Nasir Robinson’s 25 carries for 117 yards and a score. But he couldn’t corral a pitch and the loose ball was recovered by Hill-Murray’s Alex Gross, who also ran for 90 on offense, to end South St. Paul’s potential game-tying scoring drive.
Less than a minute later, Reeves hit Berg again, this time for a 55-yard touchdown pass to put Hill-Murray up 21-6. Berg had five grabs for 124 yards.
That balance — being able to run the ball consistently while also hitting big plays through the air — is something Reeves noted the Pioneers haven’t always had.
“Offensively, we’re working towards becoming more of a balanced offense than we’ve ever been,” he said. “We’re able to throw the post, we’re able to throw the ball a little bit, and that opens up the run.”
After Berg’s second score, South St. Paul returned the ensuing kickoff into Pioneers’ territory but could do nothing with the offensive possession.
A turnover on downs was quickly followed by a 71-yard rushing touchdown for Gophers’ commit Simon Seidl, who ran for 101 yards. Seidl scored a second time in the fourth quarter, recording an impressive one-handed snare of a Reeves’ pass — the quarterback’s third passing touchdown — to make it 35-6 Hill-Murray.