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Middletown - There was some sadness, surely, at the hollow thought of season's end. There were some tears, too. And yet Montville High School's traveling party left the field for the final time Sunday night with few laments or regrets, despite the pain of losing in the state semifinals.
That's what happens when you encounter what is very likely Class M's best team and certainly its best player. The Indians just weren't good enough to harness Hillhouse's quickness, best personified by senior Harold Cooper.
"Might be the fastest kid I've ever seen in my life," Montville coach Tanner Grove said.
It was Cooper's 156 yards - and penchant for the big play - that helped the Academics earn a 48-26 victory and the program's sixth trip to the state championship game. They'll play Berlin either Friday or Saturday at Rentschler Field.
"I'm proud of the effort. Hillhouse is an amazing team. I don't have to talk about their resume," said Grove, whose team finished 9-3. "I don't think there's anything we didn't do. I think they're going to win a state championship. Easily."
It's doubtful Hillhouse will see a player this weekend the same caliber as Montville's Jeremiah Crowley, whose 246 rushing yards kept the Indians close enough, even into the fourth period. Crowley ran for three scores, too.
It's just that Hillhouse had more than one answer for him: Cooper, quarterback Je'Vaughn Moore (115 passing yards) and receiver/corner Darryn Horner (two touchdowns), among others.
"We knew coming in they were a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger," Cooper said. "Our coaches told us we had to use our speed."
Hillhouse led 21-6 late in the first half when a Crowley-inspired drive produced his second touchdown, making it 21-12. Suddenly, the Indians realized they'd survived a 21-point barrage, but made it a manageable deficit. They even forced Hillhouse into a third-and-17.
Hillhouse, in no hurry to snap the ball inside of 35 seconds left in the half, gave it to Cooper on a basic running play.
And Cooper ran 67 yards for a touchdown.
"We had a lot of momentum. The kids believed," Grove said. "We talked in the last few days about how Cooper would do some things you only see on video games. So when that happens, just go, 'yup, that's him.' And move on. We did that. We got to third-and-17. Then he beats our linebacker. Gone."
And so went the season. Horner added two scores in the third period, the second on a 52-yard interception return. The Academics led 42-12 before Montville cut it to 42-20 and even recovered an onside kick. But a late interception sealed it.
"No one is going to sit back on the bus home and say, 'you know, we're really glad we lost in the semis again,'" Grove said. "But in a few days, we'll be proud of our accomplishments. We didn't bring back any skill position players except the quarterback (Nick Clemons) and we won the division, made the Final Four (of Class M) and then ran into a better team."
The Indians lose Clemons and linemen Jake Basilica and Isaiah Holloway, among others. But they've earned a reputation under Grove now of playing past Thanksgiving.
"One of the Hillhouse guys told us on the field before the game that they expected us to be here," Grove said. "That means a lot to us."