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Union County stays perfect , tops Hilliard thanks to strong ground game

The Tigers came into the game undefeated, 11-0, but because of the RPI, Hilliard was the higher seed

HILLIARD, Fla. – When Union County is on a tear, it seems like maybe the only team that can stop the Tigers is … Union County.

After penalties, miscues and botched assignments plagued the Tigers in the first half of the News4Jax Game of the Week, Union County seemed up to its usual deep playoff run by scoring the final 38 points Friday night. With three rushers topping 80 yards and two pick-sixes from Daylyn Diston, the Tigers rolled to a 52-14 victory over host Hilliard in the Region 3-1A semifinals.

GAME OF THE WEEK | Union County 52, Hilliard 14

PLAYOFF UPDATE | Scores and next week’s schedules

Union County coach Andrew Thomas pointed to the obvious reasons his team handcuffed itself in the first half — two fumbles on pitchouts and 100 yards in penalties, which gave the Red Flashes three first-half first downs and also negated a kickoff return to the Hilliard 1.

“We had some mistakes in the first half,” said Rayvon Durant, who scored a touchdown and led all rushers with 157 yards. “We got in the locker room and fixed that. Coach had a good game plan. We did what he said, fixed it — mistakes, penalties, missed assignments, missed blocks — and went from there.”

‘There’ is the regional finals, where the Tigers will be on the road again, this time at top-seed Chiefland (10-1), a 28-27 victor in overtime over Mayo Lafayette. That undefeated Union County (12-0), a third seed now in its third consecutive regional final, is not the top seed by the RPI standard and not hosting next week is a slight point of contention for Thomas.

“To me, I felt like we got robbed with the whole seeding,” Thomas said. “I thought we would have been the one seed, but that’s the way this thing is set up. We have to win on the road, and our expectations are to win regionals, but it’s more than that. We have to look at it week to week. But we have to play better than we did (against Hilliard) to win next week.”

The Flashes aspire to be in that position. Second-seed Hilliard (9-2) was denied again a shot at its first regional final.

The Flashes rallied from 14 down to tie the game and were in position to take the lead late in the second quarter on a field goal, but with their usual kicker sidelined after injuring his hip flexor before the game, the 22-yard attempt clanged off the right upright.

Union County promptly moved 80 yards in nine plays, capped by Durant’s nine-yard scoring run for a 21-14 lead with 1:27 left in the opening half. The game was a runaway from that point forward.

“We got no turnovers (in the second half),” Hilliard coach John Pate said. “We had the momentum and missed the field goal. But that’s no excuse. The better football team won. They’re stronger, they’re bigger, they’re faster. When you don’t get turnovers and you have three interceptions — two to the house — you’re not going to beat anybody doing that.”

Few would beat the Tigers doing that. Union County had so many weapons that its first touchdown drive of the second half went 60 yards in seven plays with six different players carrying the ball on the possession.

The Tigers rolled up 467 total yards, all on the ground. Quarterback A.J. Cortese, who capped that drive with a keeper, ran for 75 of his 116 yards in the second half, scoring twice. Caleb Crawford tacked on 80 rushing yards to go with a first-half score. Half of Durant’s 16 carries went for first downs.

And then there was Diston. His 54 rushing yards were impressive, but it was defense where he shined, picking off two passes in the second half and returning them 51 and 85 yards for scores. The last return not only was the game’s final score, but it sent the contest into running-clock mode.

“I was just sitting on them, and I read it,” Diston said. “That’s what happens when you watch film — you just read things.”

That was part of the Thomas’ hope: That extending the lead would force Hilliard into obvious passing situations and allow his defense to pressure the quarterback, which it did with three second-half sacks.

The Flashes will have opportunities down the road. Eighteen of the 22 starters were underclassmen. It’s a learning process, and the Flashes looked right up to the challenge at times, with a trick play leading to Dylan Coston being uncovered for a 56-yard scoring pass from Lyle Bennett that tied the game at 14.

D.J. Coston added 102 rushing yards and a score. So, yes, Hilliard should be back.

But for this season, a really good team set up a roadblock in the Flashes’ path, handing Hilliard its second loss following a defeat to Blountstown in the regular season.

“When I got here, we had 17 players and crap work ethic,” Pate said. “Now, we’ve got 90 players in the program (grades) six through 12. We have a winning middle school team, a winning JV team.

“But two teams that were physically superior to us sanded us. It was disappointing, because I thought we prepared to hang in there. But it slipped away, it slipped away in a hurry. That team may win state. They have enough talent and depth to do that.”

Union County 52, Hilliard 14

Union Co., 14, 7, 17, 14 —52

Hilliard, 7, 7, 0, 0 —14

U – Caleb Crawford 1 run (kick failed)

U – Dayviontae Thompson 13 run (Crawford run)

H – D.J. Coston 19 run (Lyle Bennett kick)

H – Dylan Coston 56 pass from Bennett (Bennett kick)

U – Rayvon Durant 9 run (Jonathan Edwards kick)

U – Edwards 33 FG

U – A.J. Cortese 1 run (Edwards kick)

U – Daylyn Diston 51 INT return (Edwards kick)

U – Cortese 3 run (Edwards kick)

U – Diston 85 INT return (Edwards kick)

Category: U — H

First downs: 23 16

Rushes-yards: 54-467 — 25-86

Passing: 0 —172

Comp-Att-Int: 0-4-0 — 12-32-3

Fumbles-lost: 2-2 — 1-0

Penalties-Yards: 16-150 — 5-40

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — U: Durant 16-157, Cortese 11-116, Crawford 12-80, Diston 6-54, Zacari Lee 3-31, Thompson 4-22, Evan Hall 2-7. H D.J. Coston 18-102, Bennett 7-(-16).

PASSING — U: Cortese 0-4-0-0. H: Bennett 12-32-3-172.

RECEIVING — H: Dylan Coston 4-87, Bradyn Matto 5-71, D.J. Coston 3-14.