Pair of Danville stars shine brightest on state championship stage

Published 12:23 pm Sunday, December 3, 2017

LEXINGTON – D’Mauriae VanCleave had the big plays. Christian Hill had the brute force.

The two Danville seniors were masters of disruption in distinctly different ways Saturday at Kroger Field as they helped the Admirals end a long championship drought.

VanCleave and Hill accounted for many of the biggest plays in Danville’s 35-21 victory over Mayfield in the Class 2A title game, a win that gave the Admirals their 11th state championship and their first in 14 years.

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“There’s nothing that tops this – at all,” Hill said.

VanCleave was named the game’s most valuable player, an easy choice after he put up 218 all-purpose yards and scored four of the Admirals’ five touchdowns.

Hill, however, was every bit as valuable in his own right, as he wreaked havoc on the Mayfield offense from his nose guard position throughout the afternoon.

They shined on the state’s biggest stage, leading the Admirals to the victory they couldn’t get when they reached the 2A finals last year in Bowling Green, only to lose to Louisville Christian.

“We got here last year, and the preparation level wasn’t as high as it is now,” VanCleave said. “Just the IQ of the game, and us being a large senior class, we just brought a lot to the field and we finished what we (couldn’t) last year.”

VanCleave made one big play after another for Danville, scoring twice on rushing plays, once on a reception and once on a punt return. He also intercepted two passes.

“He’s really turned it up these last six or seven weeks, He’s just a game-breaker,” Danville coach Clay Clevenger said. “(Assistant) coach (Kyle) Singleton was talking about having some shot plays, and I just said, ‘Give it to 7, because that’s our shot.’ Every time he touches it, he’s a threat.”

VanCleave was the Admirals’ leading rusher with 103 yards on 10 carries. He scored on a 67-yard reverse run early in the second quarter, giving the Admirals a 14-8 lead just 19 seconds after Mayfield had taken its first lead of the game, and he had a 3-yard rushing touchdown with 2:03 remaining to cap the scoring.

He also was the Ads’ leading receiver with five catches for 42 yards. Three of his catches were on what were essentially shovel passes, including one in which he scored from 6 yards on the game’s first series.

He had a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the third quarter when the Cardinals made the mistake of kicking to him.

And he had two interceptions in the second quarter, one in which he caught the ball on the sideline and tried to pitch it forward to teammate David Walker as he fell, and one when he picked off Mayfield’s Jaden Stinson at the 5-yard line on the final play of the first half to preserve Danville’s 21-8 lead.

“He’s unstoppable. Period,” Hill said.

VanCleave finished his senior season with 82 catches for 1095 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he had 762 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 72 attempts.

He never got a chance to throw a pass, but he did fill in at quarterback for two plays in the first quarter Saturday while Zach Thornton was being treated for a shoulder injury. He said it was the first time he had played that position, and he didn’t know at the time whether Thornton would return.

“I definitely don’t throw the ball, so they knew exactly what I was going to do,” VanCleave said. “I kept my head up and tried to boost the team and helped us keep pushing,” he said.

Hill did plenty of pushing, too. Mayfield’s offense outgained Danville by 7 yards, but a unit that averaged 205 rushing yards through its first 14 games was held to 76 by the Danville defense – including just 41 through the first three quarters.

Hill was at the heart of that effort, driving through the line to get to Mayfield’s quarterbacks and running backs.

“I was getting help from the front seven. They were getting pressure on the other sides of the ball, and it opened up my lanes to get to the quarterback,” he said.

Hill had only two solo tackles and two assists Saturday, but his impact on the game was undeniable.

“Nobody’s blocking Christian Hill. Nobody,” VanCleave said.

Hill has been a force for the Admirals’ defensive front all season long, and Clevenger said he has been even more forceful since taking up permanent residence at nose guard for the postseason.

“Christian’s been that war dog all year for us on the D-line,” Clevenger said. “We moved him to nose and kept him there at the start of the playoffs, and it’s what made our defense come alive.”

The plan was for Hill to focus on defense this season after playing on both sides of the ball earlier in his career, but he was again asked to put in some time on offense in the second half of the season. He rotated at left tackle after an injury to a teammate in week eight.

“We just tried to use him sparingly or had certain plays that we liked to run with him,” Clevenger said.

“I was used to playing both ways,” Hill said. “I was a little out of shape for the first couple of games, but I got used to it.”

That surely brought a smile to the face of Clevenger, a former lineman who played on Danville championship teams in 1992 and ’94 and who returned to his alma mater five seasons ago to try to put the Admirals back on top.

“That’s what we came home to do, me and my wife and kids,” Clevenger said. “It was tough sledding there the first couple years trying to put our stamp on the program, but starting two years ago (the team) started buying in and got us back on the radar and got us to the point where we were able to do what we did today.”

It wasn’t always easy, even this season as the Admirals plowed their way through an arduous schedule en route to becoming the school’s ninth undefeated team. But the players found out what Clevenger learned 25 years ago.

“There’s no better feeling than to win the state after all this hard work,” VanCleave said. “No better feeling.”