BALTIMORE — Aris Hilliard roamed the end zone, doing all he could to tame the nervous energy weaving through his 5-foot-8 frame as he awaited the opening kickoff to Tuscarora’s football season. The countless hours of preparation had culminated to that very moment, the wide-eyed Hilliard — a junior varsity player a year ago — staring down the kick heading his way.
He positioned himself for the return until the ball took a nosedive and hit the turf awkwardly, bouncing away from the junior experiencing his first crack at the varsity level.
But during that heart-stopping, slow-motion sequence, Hilliard collected his emotions along with the football, and reverted back to what he knows best.
The Titans running back put on the burners and pranced 95 yards to the house, upstarting one of the most memorable debuts in the state’s recent history.
Despite Milford Mill’s best effort, Hilliard finished the day with 396 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns, leading Tuscarora past Milford Mill on the road Saturday, 38-14.
“I was kind of scared, nervous. That first play … I saw the ball coming to me. I’m like, ‘Oh, crap, it’s coming to me,'” said Hilliard, who gained 301 yards on the ground in 24 attempts. “I was scared. But [the ball] bounced, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I messed up already.’ I picked up the ball, saw an open hole, and just played football. Just did my thing.”
It didn’t take long to keep things churning. Three plays into their first offensive drive of the season, and not even three minutes later, Hilliard ripped through the line of the scrimmage and raced 78 yards for his second touchdown in three touches. In four plays, Tuscarora mounted a 14-0 advantage.
“It’s a relief inside. Because, as a coach going into a game, you plan and you scout and you try to evaluate and measure your team, their team, and everything else,” Tuscarora coach Vince Ahearn said. “I always tell people, you have to be two weeks in before, for me at least, I’m comfortable with my evaluation.
“So, when that happened, it was literally a big sigh relief. Because, now, you’re ahead of the game from the first play. You can settle down and get to work.”
— Kyle McFadden (@k_fadd) September 3, 2017
Two drives later, Hilliard bounced to the perimeter and blew by a pair of defenders for a 53-yard jaunt, padding the Titans lead to 21-0 in the early minutes of the second quarter. Hilliard scored his fourth and final touchdown when he slipped outside and took a pitch 12 yards across the pylon, which swelled Tuscarora’s lead to 31-0.
And when their momentum was threatened in the fourth quarter – with back-to-back Milford Mill scores making it 31-14 – Hilliard dusted off three defenders for a 58-yard dagger on third-and-10, which put the Titans at the Millers 12-yard line in the diminishing minutes.
“I’ll say, I’ve never seen an individual performance for a first game like that,” Ahearn said. “Last year, he was running around on JV. … And there’s a reason why he did that — it’s because of what he did in the offseason.
“We challenged him, and you don’t have to challenge him too hard. He challenges himself. He worked his tail off in the offseason.”
Tuscarora’s defense turned in a commendable performance as well, holding Milford Mill to 169 total yards of offense. With Hilliard’s monster contribution at the forefront, Tuscarora’s offensive line paved the way for 358 rushing yards on 45 carries.
Larry Goins added 66 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
“The offensive line, they were awesome,” Ahearn said.
But on Friday in the suburbs of Baltimore, it was Hilliard’s day. After filing through the post-game handshake line, members of the Tuscarora football team scurried back to the sideline where two photographers stationed, their cameras clicking away as players buoyantly posed for photo ops. One by one, players spilled into the post-game celebration. Hilliard lagged behind, largely because the Tuscarora coaches embraced their newly established weapon.
One of the Tuscarora players yelled out, “Where’s Aris? Aris, get in here!”
Hilliard bolted around to the front and plopped down on the turf, sticking both feet out and holding his arms out wide. The moment was his, and this time, he fully embraced it.
NOTE: Tuscarora quarterback Christian Edwards went 4-for-13 with 95 yards passing. Desmond Shell ran for 49 yards on seven carries for Milford Mill. Brandon Savage completed 9 of 19 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. Jawan Rabb caught three receptions for 37 yards and one touchdown.
T — Hilliard 95-yard kick return (Barrick kick), 7-0
T — Hilliard 78-yard run (Barrick kick), 14-0
T — Hilliard 53-yard run (Barrick kick), 21-0
T — Ryan Barrick 36-yard field goal, 24-0
T — Hilliard 12-yard run (Barrick kick), 31-0
MM — Savage 3-yard run (Savage pass to Ubasi), 31-8
MM — Rabb 10-yard pass from Savage (Pass failed), 31-14
T — Goins 12-yard run (Barrick kick), 38-14