Hilltop climbing to the summit

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Hilltop quarterback Omar Hernandez has led the Lancers newly-installed spread offense. The sophomore has four passing and five rushing touchdowns this season.

With their win at Sweetwater on Sept. 18, Hilltop won their third-straight to start this season. Last year, Hilltop won one game the entire season.

“During summer ball we were doing crazy workouts everyday – everybody was working super hard,” said Lancers senior linebacker Pat McGrath. “We just wanted to flip it – flip the season. We did not want to have the same season as last year.”

Following a 2008 season in which they finished 1-9, Hilltop made a change at the top. Mark Flint, who had served as the Lancers' freshmen coach and taught at Hilltop for the past few years, was named varsity head coach in March. Flint graduated from Hilltop in 1985.

“Even though I was a new coach, it wasn't like I was new on campus,” Flint said. “I was familiar with how things ran last year and the heartbeat of the program.”

In the offseason, Flint pretty much started from scratch. Only one assistant coach remains from last year's varsity staff.

“The only coach that is left over is the offensive line coach. The coaching staff has really been key to our success this year. I got a really, really good group of coaches,” Flint said. “They're upbeat, they're very knowledgeable, the kids like them and look up to them.”

With change in personnel came a change in scheme. That involved a slight tweaking of the defense and throwing out the offensive playbook in the offseason.

Defensively, the Lancers switched from a 3-3-5 to a 3-5-3. Flint said this switch simply involves moving up two safeties closer to the line of scrimmage before the snap.

On the other side of the ball, the Lancers switched from the A-11 offense – a revolutionary offense that features two quarterbacks and up to six eligible receivers per play – to a move conventional spread attack with one back and four receivers. Despite implementing a new system, the Lancers' offense has put up 35 points per game this season.

“I'm not surprised. We got some playmakers on this team. We got some guys that can go 60 yards for a touchdown,” Flint said. “It hasn't really surprised me – it's been nice though.”

Key to the success of the offense has been the play of sophomore quarterback Omar Hernandez. Hernandez started on Hilltop's freshmen team last year before moving up to junior varsity for the second half of the season.

“Omar has 'it' as far as quarterback is concerned,” Flint said. “Two guys can throw the same pass and one ball gets knocked down and one gets completed and it's just by an inch or so and Omar has that ability.”

Hernandez has thrown for 524 yards and four touchdowns in the Lancers' first three games. He has also rushed the ball 29 times for 282 yards and five touchdowns – both via designed running plays and his own improvisation.

“He is deceptively fast – he's quick – and he's got a great arm,” Flint said. “Once he learns a little bit about coverages and who he should be looking at, he's really gonna bloom.”

A part of the near wholesale changes at Hilltop in the offseason was a change in attitude. The Lancers' new outlook may be most responsible for their hot start.

“Everybody was down but once the new coaches came in it's like everything turned around, guys picked up, we got a new mentality,” McGrath said.

That new mentality was evident from the first week of the season. In their season-opener against San Diego, the Lancers trailed by 10 at the half before outscoring the Cavers 32-8 in the final two quarters to win by two touchdowns.

“I think in years past, being down 10 points at halftime, there'd be a certain attitude or feeling and with this group it's different. We came out in the second half and put it on them and a lot of that is just due to our conditioning,” Flint said. “We have worked really really hard trying to get the guys into shape so when we get into the second half they have that confidence that they're going to be stronger than the opposing team.”

Hilltop's season-opening win created a buzz on campus that hasn't died down yet. McGrath said it all got started after the win over San Diego on Sept. 4.

“It hyped everybody up. The whole school is really into it,” McGrath said.

The student section, called “The Hooligans” and organized by Hilltop water polo coach John Salts, has provided the Lancers an extra boost this season. Flint credits the student body in having a hand in Hilltop's early success.

“The spirit amongst the student body at the games has been like no spirit that I've seen since I've been here,” Flint said. “We've had a couple hundred of these kids, they paint themselves up, they're in the stands, they're loud and the players notice that.”

With a strong start, a growing student fan base and a schedule that has seven home games, it doesn't appear Hilltop is going away any time soon. Flint said that the Lancers' undefeated start is not a fluke.

“It comes down to the boys,” Flint said. “The boys have a lot of heart and they're worked hard. Something that I've told them is that these wins are not something that you've found – you've paid your dues on these things, you've put your time in, you've earned these and you deserve these.”

Hilltop hosts Patrick Henry (0-2) this Friday, beginning a four-game home stretch that includes current unbeatens Mission Bay (Oct. 2) and Eastlake (Oct. 16). Even with a daunting Mesa League schedule ahead, McGrath doesn't expect the winning to stop.

“I expect to be undefeated this year,” McGrath said. “I don't think anybody can beat us.”

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