WEST HAVEN >> In an evening featuring a season’s worth of scintillating scoring plays, it was the closest thing to a sure thing which ultimately lifted visiting Hand to a come-from-behind victory over Hillhouse.
Nick van Dell’s clutch third-down completion to Josh DeMartino helped set up Nick Phan for a game-winning 19-yard field goal with 5.7 seconds remaining as the Tigers escaped with a 28-26 Southern Connecticut Conference interdivision victory on Friday night at Veterans Stadium.
“The fans got their money’s worth tonight,” Hand coach Steve Filippone said after the Tigers rallied from an 18-point deficit to pick up their first win of the season.
When the game began, senior captain Hayden Atwater was Hand’s quarterback, but Filippone made the switch to van Dell, a sophomore who is a more elusive runner.
Van Dell ran for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns and passed for an additional 149 yards and another score.
“We have a great senior in Hayden Atwater; he is the captain of our team and he’s unselfish and totally committed to doing what our team needs,” Filippone said. “And we didn’t get a lot out of either quarterback in the first game. It didn’t feel like (Atwater) was as comfortable tonight and I kind of thought Nick would be.
“He is just a tremendous competitor, a very gifted athlete who is suited to this offense. If we were in an I-formation, play-action, dropback pass, (Atwater) would throw the bomb because he has a rocket. He is smart and he does what he is asked to do, but we are not in that so we need somebody who is mobile. We need somebody who can run and somebody who can make throws on the perimeter and he can do that.”
Van Dell struggled throwing the ball early on, but got more confident as the game wore on.
“In the game, it was a little nervewracking, but it was really fun,” van Dell said. “It is huge. To come back after they were up, it was amazing and to bounce back from the first week, it was great for our team.”
Dowd ran for 92 yards, Dan Rogers had eight tackles and an interception, Tommy Wilson had seven tackles and Reid Sweitzer had a pair of fumble recoveries for Hand.
Tarrol Stafford had nine tackles, Jerod Williams eight tackles and Lawrence Caple a pair of interceptions for Hillhouse (0-2).
Two plays after a 44-yard punt return by Tommy Wilson, Hand took the lead on van Dell’s 14-yard scoring run to give the Tigers a 25-18 lead with 9:11 to play.
Hillhouse answered right back on the legs of senior tailback Harold Cooper, who had 44 of his 164 yards on a 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive. Corey Maddox threw a 2-yard touchdown pass with 4:11 to play to pull the Academics within a point. Hillhouse went for the lead and predictably gave the ball to Cooper, who surpassed the 5,000-yard career rushing mark earlier in the game. Cooper caught a lateral from Maddox and with multiple Hand defenders charging hard, delivered the go-ahead two-point conversion pass with a two-hand push to Craig Rossi.
Hillhouse used a pair of big plays to jump out to an 18-0 lead as Maddox had a 63-yard scoring run and Cooper raced 92 yards for a touchdown. Maddox also had a 2-yard scoring run two plays after a fake punt by Hand came up a yard short of the first down.
Hand got on the board when an errant pitch to Cooper resulted in a safety. On the ensuing drive, van Dell hooked up with Tom Wilson on a pair of completions, including a 10-yard score in the left corner of the end zone.
An interception by Rogers on Hillhouse’s next drive led to a 3-yard scoring run by van Dell. Conor Dowd added his second two-point conversion run of the second quarter to tie the game at 18.
“The turnovers were the turning point of our game,” Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle said. “It came back to our mistakes. I give credit to Hand, they played a heck of a game, but we made too many mistakes.
“It kind of reminded me of two years ago with Xavier. We had them and let them go. The kids played hard and we are back at it on Monday.”
Hand 28, Hillhouse 26
(at West Haven)
Hand 0 18 0 10 — 28
Hillhouse 12 6 0 8 — 26
HI—Corey Maddox 63 run (kick failed)
HI—Corey Maddox 2 run (run failed)
HI—Harold Cooper 92 run (pass failed)
HD—Tom Wilson 10 pass from Nick Van Dell (Conor Dowd run)
HD—Nick Van Dell 3 run (Dowd run)
HD—Nick Van Dell 14 run (Tyler Phan kick)
HI—Tyler Williams 2 pass from Corey Maddox (Paul Riles from Cooper)
HD—Tyler Phan 19 FG
Team records: Hillhouse 0-2; Hand 1-1