By Jared Keene, Metrowest Daily News Coorspondent
Breaking school records and winning football games.
That’s precisely the way the season has gone for Hopkinton, which entered Week 7 having won all six of its contests to date. Beyond that, the Hillers have used their high-powered passing attack to be a feared offensive program, with junior quarterback Ryan Kelleher and senior wide receiver Will Abbott at the heart of it.
Kelleher came into the week having thrown 21 touchdowns, which is not only a single season school record, but also tops in Division 4. As for Abbott — a talented three-sport athlete in football, hockey, and lacrosse — he’s reeled in a Division 4-leading 12 of those touchdowns, which is also a single season school record.
Friday night, Kelleher, Abbott, and the rest of the Hillers found themselves hosting longtime Tri-Valley League Large power Holliston in a game with serious league title implications.
Behind its aforementioned lethal duo, as well as a stout defensive effort, it was Hopkinton that claimed the league title ouright with a hard-earned 12-8 victory.
“This means everything,” Hopkinton coach Jim Girard said. “The guys have worked really hard towards this and they really started that work in the offseason. They have such good team chemistry and they’re such good kids. They work hard, they’re unselfish, they’re mature, and they do right, and I think that’s really the key.”
Had the Panthers won, there would have been a three-way tie for the league title between Holliston, Hopkinton, and Medfield, as each all would have had one league loss. But that was not the case, as the Hillers’ win — their first over Holliston since 2008 — ensured an unbeaten regular season at 7-0 (4-0 TVL) and a league championship.
“It’s indescribable,” Abbott, a Quinnipiac lacrosse commit, said. “We have a tight-knit senior class and we’ve been working at this since our freshman year. It means a lot because we really deserve this [after] all the work we’ve put in.”
Holliston (3-3, 2-2 TVL) opened the game with the ball and went right to work on the ground out of its patented “WAR” package.
Using four different players, the Panthers slowly moved the ball down the field, picking up three first downs along the way. But on the 13th play of the drive, which took 6:48 off the clock, quarterback Ryan Benco’s pass on third-and-8 was tipped up in the air and intercepted by Hillers senior captain linebacker Anthony Farina.
But the Hillers couldn’t capitalize.
Holliston, which put up just 48 total yards of offense in the first half, continued to struggle offensively, going three-and-out for the second time in a row. The ensuing punt was also somewhat shanked, leaving Hopkinton in very good field position on the Panther 35-yard line.
This time, the Hillers took advantage, as they needed five plays to get in the end zone. On first-and-goal from the 10, Hopkinton offensive coordinator Dan Sullivan reached into his bag of tricks, as the Hillers faked a jet sweep from left to right before Kelleher found Abbott on a misdirection shovel pass for the score. Robby Pagliuca’s extra point made it 7-0 with 4:41 left in the first half.
“That was a new play we put in this week,” Abbott said. “It was a great play call. The blocking was amazing, which made my job easier. The hole was there, the blocking was fantastic.”
The third quarter opened with a Hopkinton drive that eventually stalled on the Panthers 6-yard line. That’s when the Hillers brought on Pagliuca on fourth down and the junior calmly booted a 23-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with 6:57 left in the frame.
Holliston got a much-needed response, though, as Benco hooked up with senior speedster Mikey Nash deep down the left seam for a 45-yard touchdown. The Panthers then faked the point-after and converted a two-point rush to make it 10-8 with 4:39 on the clock.
“The field goal made it a two possession game, but that’s why I’m proud of our kids,” Holliston coach Todd Kiley said. “Down two possessions to a team like that, I mean they make you earn every inch. We had a big score there on the pass and I’m really just proud of our kids tonight. We showed zero quit.”
In the final 4:30 of the game, the Hopkinton defense really stepped up.
First, Benco was dropped by Kyle Kauzens in the end zone for a safety, making it 12-8 with 4:30 on the clock. Then with 1:10 to play, Farina made himself known again, recovering a fumble, which locked up the victory for the Hillers.
“Our punting unit did an outstanding job and our defense really put us in situations that gave us favorable field position and that was key,” Girard said. “A great punt set up the safety. All the different teams work off each other. We played very well defensively. Our defensive line really got after the quarterback tonight and we made some key plays when we needed to.”