O’FALLON — Before the game, Hickman coach Gregg Nesbitt said the team that forced the most turnovers would have the advantage.
Hickman forced three turnovers and blocked a punt on its way to a 24-8 state quarterfinal win against Fort Zumwalt West on Saturday at Hoekel Stadium in O’Fallon.
The Kewpies (8-3) defense returned an interception for a touchdown and held the Jaguars offense to 156 yards.
The final turnover ended the Jaguars’ chance for a comeback. With Fort Zumwalt West trailing 24-8 with 1:47 left, Hickman’s Jim McNeil made the first interception of his career when he grabbed Ed Morelli’s pass.
“That’s the way our defense is set up is for us to just lock on our guy and he just happened to throw it,” McNeil said. “The quarterback was a little late with the throw and so I was just able to get in front of it. I was excited, I knew that we were done right there.”
The Kewpies capitalized when Ed Morelli threw an interception on third down with 7:22 left in the second quarter. Mike Roper made the pick and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown to give Hickman a 10-0 lead.
Hickman’s offense has struggled in the first half, which meant the turnovers were even more important for momentum.
“I thought that we really answered the bell,” defensive coordinator Jason Wright said. “Turnovers really become very vital in a game like this. I thought that we gained some confidence from (Roper’s interception) defensively.”
Turnovers led to all 10 of Hickman’s first half points.
Hickman only committed one turnover, a Blake Tekotte fumble in the first quarter that Fort Zumwalt West’s Aaron Campbell recovered. The Kewpies’ defense held, though, and the Jaguars went three and out.
Then a block of the Jaguars’ punt led to Hickman’s first score. The snap was high and Steven Broadus blocked Matt Hottelman’s punt, which Reggie Hatton recovered on Fort Zumwalt’s 12 with 7:01 left in the first quarter. The Kewpies scored four plays later on Brandon Ferling’s 34-yard field goal.
“We thought we could get one or two (blocked punts) today,” Nesbitt said. “Unfortunately we just got one, but it sure was a big one.”
Hickman capitalized again in the fourth quarter when Morelli fumbled on his own 37 to end a small drive for the Jaguars. Hickman recovered and scored five plays later on Eric Owen’s 1-yard run.
Nesbitt said the defense’s performance was a key factor in the Kewpies win.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the offense,” Nesbitt said. “When you play that solid defense for that long a period of time, that was big.”