It only took seven-and-a-half minutes for the Bulldogs to dash those hopes.
The Yellow Jackets turned two Hylton muffed punts into a 10-0 lead four minutes into the second quarter, setting off its wild visiting crowd and forcing even the royal blue and yellow bee mascot to bust a move.
Osbourn Park’s Roland Hilliard was running over and around Hylton defenders and the Yellow Jackets were playing the kind of defense that allowed them to put up seven shutouts this season.
Even with a new coach and plenty of new faces at key positions, Hylton simply pulled out its same old tricks in the second half.
The Bulldogs turned a 10-6 halftime deficit into a 20-10 lead before Osbourn Park ran its first third-quarter play.
Should we have expected anything else?
Jeff Overton and his teammates agreed at halftime that the worst thing they could do was panic.
Head coach Lou Sorrentino, who won a state title in 1999 at Culpeper before coming to Hylton this year, reminded his team that regional championship games weren’t supposed to be cakewalks.
“We’ve been in here at halftime before when things weren’t going well,” said Sorrentino, whose team was in a scoreless tie at halftime of a win against Gar-Field and a loss to Woodbridge earlier this season. “We sometimes expect things to come easy.”
“We thought we had them right where we wanted them [at the half],” said Osbourn Park’s Brian Beaty, in his second year as a head coach. “The kids were excited, because they knew we had done some good things.”
Osbourn Park ran six plays on the game’s first drive before punting. James Parker dropped the punt and Robert Castillo recovered at the 11-yard line, leading to an Andrew Dykstra field goal six minutes into the game.
Hylton’s James Salazar dropped OP’s next punt, near the start of the second quarter, and the Yellow Jackets’ Brent Alden recovered. Hilliard busted off a 24-yard run on an eight-play, 54-yard drive that helped OP go up 10-0.
“A lot of things went against us in the first half,” said Sorrentino, whose team also had its first point-after attempt blocked. “We gave them great field position … but you’ve got to weather that storm.”
“I don’t think we came out flat,” said Jeff Overton, who had a hand in all four Hylton touchdowns. “Any good team in the playoffs is going to capitalize on fumbles and mistakes.”
That’s just what Hylton did in the second half.
The Bulldogs plowed 70 yards on 10 plays using four ballcarriers to go up 12-10 following the second half kickoff. Then Salazar redeemed himself for his earlier fumble.
Kicker John Coletta unintentionally knuckle-balled a kick down the Osbourn Park sideline. Out of the scrum at the 27-yard line popped Salazar, ball in hand.
“That was big,” Beaty said. “I thought we [still] had the momentum there.”
Overton scored on a 7-yard run five plays later. The air shot out of Osbourn Park’s balloon. Overton added a two-point conversion to put Hylton up 20-10 with 4:31 to go in the third period. The Bulldogs were rolling.
Osbourn Park gained 19 yards on five plays, but punted just 2:24 after it took over. Hylton again muffed the punt, this time at the 21-yard line, but recovered and controlled the action the rest of the way.
“The first thing I said when I got in the huddle [in the second half] was we’ve got to score quick,” Overton said. “Then we had to come back and score again. That was the goal, to score two quick times and take the momentum.”
Part of the Bulldogs’ secret was their success on third down. They were 10 of 12 in the game, 6 of 7 in the second half.
When Osbourn Park trailed by 10 in the fourth period and hoped to get the ball back, Hylton embarked on a 13-play drive extended twice by Overton runs on third-and-long.
The Bulldogs’ first scoring drive of the second half featured a 24-yard pass from Overton to Jerome Quinata on third down and a 16-yard run by Overton on third-and-5. Overton’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Coleman came on third-and-goal.
In all, 101 of the Bulldogs’ 318 total yards came on third downs.
That’s a clutch performance that, frankly, has become typical for Hylton teams, whether they’re coached by Sorrentino or former coach Bill Brown.
Some teams, like this year’s Gar-Field squad, have had more raw talent. Some, like Osbourn Park or Potomac from a few seasons back, come in riding an amazing high that comes only from the truly special teams.
But the past five Hylton squads have hoisted the Division 6, Northwest Region championship trophy.
As Sorrentino held his third regional championship trophy — his first at Hylton — in front of his Bulldogs in a Hylton gym after Friday’s win, he told his team: “These things don’t come easy.”
Sounds awful similar to his halftime wisdom, doesn’t it?
Keith McMillan is a staff writer for the News & Messenger. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected]