Hilliard hosts Union County in 1A showdown, our game of the week

Hilliard can set a school record for wins in a season if they can hand Union County their first loss of the season on Friday night in the second round of the state playoffs. (WJXT, 2021 WJXT)

To hear Hilliard head coach John Pate talk, you would think his team just barely snuck into the playoffs only to have to face the Georgia Bulldogs this week.

Instead of the Bulldogs, it’s the Tigers of Union County who visit the Red Flashes in the second round of the state playoffs. The game is our Football Friday game of the week.

“They could quite possibly be the best team in 1A football in the state,” Pate said. “My whole staff went and watched them (last week when Hilliard had a bye), and, wow, they took Trenton behind the woodshed, and they scored in every conceivable way. They’re solid offensively and defensively, they have no weaknesses.”

Whether Union County has weaknesses may be debatable. What is not debatable is the Tigers’ record. Union County enters the game with a perfect 11-0 mark. They have a 1,000 yard rusher in junior Rayvon Durant and the Tigers’ defense has been tough to score on. Since giving up 21 points in the opener, the Tigers have held every opponent to 14 points or less, including three shutouts.

“It’s pretty obvious on the film, we’ve seen it, nobody can run right at them,” Pate said. “You’re going to have a motivated, fast, big strong team that can click and they can run it and throw it. So we’re going to have to play our very, very best to be on the field with the Fighting Tigers.”

Hilliard shouldn’t be overlooked, however. Hilliard features a 1,000 yard rusher of their own, senior DJ Coston, and a quarterback in Lyle Bennett who has thrown 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions. In four seasons since taking the reigns of the program, Pate has taken a three-win team to a nine-win team. This year’s 9-1 record matches the school record for wins in a season.

“(In 2018) I inherited 17 players and not a real good work ethic at all,” Pate said. “So we had to change that. You know, the French Foreign Legion said ‘march or die.’ And our philosophy was workout or leave.”

After that first three-win season, the Red Flashes went 7-5, then 8-1 last season before earning a first-round bye for the first time in school history this season. The wins and the development of the program have also started to grow the community support.

“It’s a great community,” Pate said. “I told our madam principal early in the process, ‘Winning football is good business.’ And we’re starting to put gates together, we’re starting to put people in there.”

The wins include victories in 20 of the Red Flashes’ 23 games. Two losses to traditional 1A powerhouse Madison County, and this season’s only defeat, a 52-22 loss to 8-1 Blountstown on Oct. 20 being the other one.

The winner of Friday night’s matchup will advance to the regional finals to face the winner of the Chiefland-Lafayette game. If Lafayette pulls the upset, Hilliard or Union County would host the game.

About the Author:

Cole joined News4Jax full-time in January 2017, but he has been a part of the team since he began filling in as a sports anchor in 2005.