Ron Peduzzi knew that defense would be the key, and in their final home game on the island with a trip to the state championship on the line, the Junkyard Dog defense he has cultivated at Hilton Head Christian Academy delivered.
The Eagles’ defense put up a first half shutout and returned two interceptions for touchdowns, closing the curtain on their home field with a 63-14 win over Pee Dee Academy to advance to the SCISA 2A state championship game next Saturday.
“The defense did a great job,” HHCA head coach Ron Peduzzi said. “We challenged them the whole week, defensive coordinator Matt Smith had a great gameplan, I know he wasn’t happy with the first half last week. We prepared really well, and we did a great job. Jace made a big play, and it got us going in the right direction.”
It’s the Eagles’ second straight appearance in the title game, and a chance to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss to Trinity Collegiate.
After a couple slow starts in recent weeks, it was imperative that HHCA found success quickly. They certainly did, forcing a Pee Dee punt on the opening drive before the hometown squad revved up the offense. JP Peduzzi dropped a dime in the hands of Cameron Strickland, who took it 60 yards to the end zone to land the first blow. Hudson Spivey and Pee Dee were looking to mount a response, but superstar Jace Blackshear had other plans. On fourth down just outside the HHCA 10, Blackshear jumped a route and picked Spivey off, taking it all the way to the end zone. The 96 yard pick-six was the longest in program history.
“I knew they were throwing the ball to Oakley and we knew they were gonna come out passing,” Blackshear said. “That turned the tide for our defense and it really gave us a lot of momentum moving forward.”
A holding call sunk Pee Dee’s ensuing drive, and the Eagles quickly got the ball back. The unstoppable duo of JP Peduzzi and Blackshear hooked up again with an amazing athletic Blackshear grab before Jackson “Bulldog” Lanier pounced into the end zone to give his team a 21-0 lead.
The Junkyard Dogs took down Spivey on a fourth-and-short before Peduzzi made a sensational one-handed catch in the back corner of the end zone. As the first half wound down, Blackshear made a rare mistake, throwing an interception in the red zone, but he redeemed himself on the next play, picking off another Spivey pass.
Blackshear was sacked to set up a fourth and long, but he threw another beauty to Peduzzi to cap off a near-flawless first half for the home team with a 35-0 lead.
But Pee Dee wasn’t going to give up on their season. The visitors recovered an onside kick to begin the second half, and Colton Caulder found the end zone to put his squad on the board. Then star receiver Caleb Oakley shrugged off a defender for an impressive 53-yard touchdown, putting Pee Dee right back in the ballgame.
But HHCA stayed composed and delivered the knockout blow, delivered by Strickland. First he made a spectacular sideline catch before finding the end zone again. Then, he took an interception 57 yards to the house, the Eagles’ second pick-six of the game. Blackshear and Gage Zatalokin capped off the scoring with two more rushing touchdowns, and the Junkyard Dogs held Pee Dee off the board the rest of the way.
After a shaky first-round effort, the HHCA defense was lights-out, with contributions all across the board to douse Pee Dee’s flaming offense from just a week ago. Kent Camp and Liam Sirgo stepped up on the defensive line and JP Wilder was fantastic at linebacker. The Blackshear-Peduzzi duo brought some extra talent to the secondary along with Eli Minton’s phenomenal effort breaking up passes against a dangerous group of receivers. And Lanier lived up this Bulldog nickname, his grit and toughness display all night long, leading the defense to their greatest showing yet.
Blackshear tossed three touchdowns, added a rushing touchdown, and tacked on two interceptions, including a massive pick-six to lead the Eagles. Strickland continued his outstanding play down the stretch, catching two touchdowns and also returning an INT for a TD, and senior JP Peduzzi was reliable once again, catching two scores and throwing for another.
“There was some pressure to win here tonight,” Ron Peduzzi said. “There’s been so many big games won here, they did not want to lose the last game played on this field. They were playing from the get-go, and they had that in their mind. So many great players have played here, and that was definitely a motivating factor.”
The final chapter on their home field has been written, but there’s still a story to finish next week. The Eagles (11-0) will travel to Charleston Southern University to face Carolina Academy next Saturday, and will look to capture the 2A state title after coming so close a year ago.
“We were on the other end last year, a lot of motivation there,” Ron Peduzzi said. “We have a great challenge ahead of us. We look forward to the challenge and we have lots of preparation and work to do this week. Our guys will be ready and we’re really happy for the opportunity.”
Story by Wes Kerr / Photo by Brooke Simons