When prolific senior quarterback Max Vonhohenstraeten left the field favoring his shoulder in the first half of the 2022 Bridge Bowl on Wednesday night in The Nest, the familiar heartbreak was looming again for the Bluffton Bobcats. But junior backup Trace Hilaman flipped the script against a stout Hilton Head Seahawks defense and helped deliver a program-defining win for first-year coach Hayden Gregory.
Hilaman tossed three touchdown passes in the second half, and Luis Rojas nailed a 27-yard field goal in overtime to vanquish rival Hilton Head High on the road 35-32 in an instant classic. It’s the Bobcats’ first victory in the rivalry game since 2018 and by far the biggest win yet in Gregory’s debut season as head coach.
“We waited four years for this, and we finally got it,” senior wide receiver Jaylin Linder said. “I told the defense to lock in and play with your heart, and on offense, we took it one play at a time.”
Just five days after falling 55-23 at Beaufort High, a motivated Bluffton offense got things started early, as Vonhohenstraeten sizzled an 18-yard pass to Linder for the first score of the night. The Seahawks were hungry to respond after a rough first possession, and sophomore running back Troy Timko got the ground game rolling before Jackson Bibee connected with Jake Huggins for a 60-yard gain. A Bluffton penalty pushed the ball to the 4-yard-line, and Timko punched it in with a Carter Saleeby two-point try to go up 8-7.
Just when the Bobcats were on their way to find the end zone again, another wave of adversity came in a flash. Vonhohenstraeten went down in pain with a shoulder injury, and Hilaman was thrown into a daunting task on the road. Rojas knocked in his first field goal of the game from 33 yards, but Timko engineered a seven-play drive and found paydirt again to put his Seahawks back in front 15-10 in the second quarter.
The new-look Bobcat offense took a while to click as the first half wound down, and Gregory tinkered with a few different looks before the intermission. His defense made a huge stand to bring some energy into the locker room, holding strong on the goal line and denying Timko to limit the Seahawks to a field goal and an eight-point halftime lead.
Gregory challenged his young men to be the most physical on the field in the second half, and they took it to heart in all three phases. The first-year Bobcat head coach had trust in his backup and knew he had the knowledge of the system and the grit to get the job done, but Gregory made some adjustments and simplified the offense to get his new signal-caller rolling and help put the ball in the hands of his team’s playmakers.
And there was no one on that field who was hungrier than Linder. On a 3rd-and-8 on his own 29, Hilman hooked up with Linder on a screen to the right side, and the veteran playmaker did the rest, finding seams upfield and burning past a horde of blue and white jerseys for an electric 71-yard touchdown. Then Gregory pulled out some trickery, as Michael Fritz found Linder for two points and an 18-18 tie.
Timko reclaimed the spotlight for Hilton Head with a powerful 31-yard run into Bobcat territory, but the drive came to a screeching halt when a bad snap resulted in a turnover. But a stout defense bailed out the Seahawks, deflecting three straight passes at the line of scrimmage to force a three-and-out. A wayward punt gave Hilton Head excellent field position, and Timko stormed into the end zone again for his third score of the game and a 25-18 lead.
But on the opening play of the fourth quarter, Hilaman struck right back, throwing a dime on the money to Fritz who scampered down the right sideline for a 54-yard touchdown. The new kid under center was feeling it.
Powered by the heroics from their backup quarterback, Bluffton’s defenders found a new wave of energy, swarming to the football and forcing a three-and-out to give Hilaman a chance to grab the lead starting in Seahawk territory. He rose to the moment and executed the task perfectly. After a few solid runs from Roderick Buxton, Hilaman found Linder again on a dazzling ball to the sideline just inches to the pylon. Hilton Head’s tough run defense pushed the Bobcats back, setting up a crucial third-down test at the 6, and the understudy turned star delivered again. Hilaman rolled to his right and threw a laser to Fritz, who secured it knee-high in the right corner of the end zone for the 32-25 lead.
The pressure shifted to Hilton Head’s Jackson Bibee with just six minutes and ticking left in the contest, and the junior quarterback pulled off the best play in his young career to keep the Seahawks afloat. On a fourth-and-five just inside the Bluffton 30, Bibee delivered some magic, escaping a charging Bluffton pass rush and floating it up to Riley McCracken, who used his 6-foot-4 frame to haul it in and set up a first-and-goal. Timko did the rest, crossing into the end zone for the fourth time to knot it up at 32.
The best football rivalry in the Lowco was at it again. The Seahawks came through with a stop late and had a chance to get in range for Saleeby to try a field goal, but a huge sack on third down in Bobcat territory killed the rest of the clock and took the Bridge Bowl into overtime.
Hilton Head took the ball first at the Bluffton 10-yard-line and put its trust in Timko to carry the ball forward, but a budding Bobcat defensive line dug deep and stood tall, stopping two Timko runs and another from Owen Bayes to set up fourth down at the five.
The Seahawks lined up for a field goal, but an errant snap sent the holder scrambling and Linder picked off a desperate heave to end Hilton Head’s possession without points. The Bobcats still needed a score on their possession to seal the victory, and Gregory wasted no time, sending in the field goal unit for a 27-yard attempt from Rojas. The kick was flawless, and the new kings of the Bridge Bowl were crowned.
“Total team effort,” Gregory said. “This was a result of months of hard work, especially with all the injuries we had. Everybody stepped up. What a team win. To win in overtime like that, for our guys to fight and grit it out, that’s what I want this team and our culture to be.”
Hilaman led the way in a magical performance, completing 8 of 15 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns. Linder was sensational at wideout with six receptions for 191 yards and two scores with the interception in overtime, and Fritz added three key catches for 72 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Timko delivered another superb game on the ground for Hilton Head High, racking up 239 yards and four touchdowns on 41 carries alongside five catches for 71 yards.
Bluffton (3-3, 1-0) returns home on Oct. 7 to face Lucy Beckham, while Hilton Head (2-4, 0-1) hosts Colleton County in a matchup with massive postseason implications.
By Wes Kerr / Photos by Brady Sacha
Please visit our sustaining sponsors online!
EMAIL US at LowcoSports@gmail.com to find out how to become a sustaining sponsor
and support grassroots LOCAL sports coverage!