The Charger football team had to overcome Mother Nature in addition to a tough Mercyhurst team to win its season opener Saturday night.
In a game marred by a 2 ½ hour lightning delay, Hillsdale's defense stepped up and got stops late in the game to preserve a 14-9 victory over the Lakers in the first game of the 2018 season for both teams.
Severe weather hit the Jackson area hard, and tornado warnings were issued less than a half hour from Hillsdale's campus during the game. Then, just as halftime began, waves of lightning lit up the sky around the stadium, forcing the long delay. It rained hard off and on throughout the delay, but there was a break in the weather patterns, and the third quarter started at 10:31 p.m. with the Chargers holding a 7-3 lead from the first half.
Hillsdale's offense responded impressively from the delay, scoring a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter. Senior quarterback Chance Stewart fired a dart to sophomore Alexander Giampietro from six yards out to put Hillsdale ahead 14-3. Stewart led the team on a nine play, 81-yard drive coming out of the longest weather-related delay any of these players have experienced in their football careers.
The Lakers scored a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, but a two-point conversion attempt resulted in a fumble. That key sequence prevented the game from being tied with just a field goal, forcing the Lakers to go the length of the field on any subsequent drive in order to take the lead.
That's when Hillsdale's defense stood tall, stopping the Lakers on each of their last three drives of the game to clinch the victory. One of the Chargers' youngest players came up with perhaps the game's biggest play during the final drive.
Redshirt freshman Matt Harding delivered a devastating tackle on Mercyhurst's Marcus Placke for no gain on a 2nd-and-1 play with one minute remaining in the game. Although the pass was complete, Harding's perfect and hard-hitting tackle ultimately forced the Lakers to burn their final timeout due to injury. Mercyhurst got a first down on 3rd-and-1, but with no timeouts left, the team was forced to run a hurry-up style offense on its final series, which ended with just four yards and no more first downs gained.
The defensive line did a good job of pressuring Mercyhurst quarterback Doug Altavilla on the final two plays, with a fourth-down pass thrown on the run falling incomplete.
Linebacker Dan Shanley produced the defense's biggest play of the first half, when he intercepted a pass in the end zone to stop the Lakers' biggest scoring threat of the first half.
The humid conditions were not conducive to clean play in the second half. The Chargers fumbled the ball four times, but fortunately recovered three of them, minimizing potential damage. Hillsdale's defense also limited the Lakers to just 4.1 yards per pass attempt, allowing 140 through the air on 34 attempts, a very efficient rate.
Tailback Christian Shepler got the scoring started for the Chargers with a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:55 to go in the first quarter.
Stewart completed 20 of 29 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown. Giampietro had a nice breakout game at wide receiver, setting new career-highs with 6 catches for 88 yards and a score. Sophomore Konnor Maloney added 5 catches for 56 yards, while tailback David Graham caught 4 for 44 yards.
Graham led the team's running attack with 68 yards on 18 carries. He had 127 yards of all-purpose yards, which included a 15-yard punt return.
Defensively, Wyatt Batdorff was again a spark, leading the team with 8 solo tackles and 8 tackle assists for a game-high 16 total. Senior Carter Wilson had 5 solo tackles, while Zach VanValkenburg and Wain Clarke each had 6 total tackles.
Photo: Todd Lancaster