Neal Eley’s kickoff return helps Hillhouse down Amity
NEW HAVEN — Hillhouse’s senior all-state end Prince Boyd had never even heard of Neal Eley when the junior transferred in from Creed Co-Op this summer.
He knows all about him now.
"Lucky to have him," Boyd said. "Lucky to meet him. If there was an initiation, he’s here now."
Everyone at Hillhouse felt that way Friday night after Eley’s 83-yard kickoff return touchdown lifted the Academics to a 22-17 victory over Amity in a thrilling SCC Tier 2 game at Bowen Field.
Amity’s Luke Smith had just hauled in a perfect, 41-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback James Laubstein down the left sideline, giving amity a 3-point lead with 1 minute, 32 seconds remaining.
The Spartans (1-2) were all but convinced they were about to pull off their biggest win in years.
With a brisk wind in their faces, coach Ted Czepiga knew even kicker Jordan Conn’s strong leg wasn’t going to get the kick into the end zone. "Our plan was to kick it as close to the goal line as possible, get down and cover it and play defense," Czepiga said.
Conn’s knuckler bounded to Eley at the goal line, the junior turned right and just ran.
"I know the speed he has," Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle said. "That was the plan, get to the outside. He had escorts in front of him and took off like a rocket."
Eley was barely challenged as he sprinted down the sideline.
"My teammate Terron Mallory just told me, get the ball and run," Eley said. "That’s what I did. I had to make a big play there. Had a couple of mistakes early. But I had to bounce back.
"This feels good. It’s my first chance to show what I can do."
All told it was a breakout night for the junior transfer. He finished with 115 yards on 13 carries, including an 82-yard touchdown run that gave Hillhouse a 14-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
"I just saw a guy who knew he had to get the job done and we put our faith into him," Boyd said. "For him to be a junior and digging down a little to make a big-time play as if he was and upperclassman, that was big."
It helped Hillhouse overcome yet another mistake-filled night. The Academics committed four turnovers — including Amity back Chris Butler’s seventh interception of the season — and had 13 penalties for 110 yards. A punt return touchdown in the second quarter was also wiped out due to a penalty.
Trailing 8-0 in the second quarter, Amity’s Laubstein hit Luigi Luciani with a 31-yard touchdown pass. Then Ryan Sabo recovered a Hillhouse fumble at the 10 to set up Conn’s 32-yard field goal for a 10-8 halftime lead.
Though Eley’s long touchdown run gave Hillhouse the lead back, the Academics couldn’t close out the game. After several failed drives, Amity finally cashed in Smith’s big play down the sideline, setting the stage for Eley’s heroics.
"The kid made a heck of a play," Czepiga said of Eley. "He’s a fantastic kick returner. He’s fast and my hat’s off to Hillhouse. We just didn’t cover the kick. It’s that simple."
Amity scored an intentional safety on fourth down and recovered its own onside kick, but the Hillhouse defense never gave the Spartans another shot.
Boyd finished with nine tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Jaaven Brown had two sacks. Sterling Hagans-McDowell had an interception. Mallory caught a touchdown pass for Hillhouse.