Jacksonville Sports Day

Hills’ Record-Breaking Night Leads Sharks Past Predators

Photo by Brion Price/Orlando Predators

Joe Hills shattered the Jacksonville Sharks’ franchise record for touchdowns in a single game on Friday, as his eight scores helped the Sharks earn a crucial 59-56 win over the Orlando Predators at Amway Center.

Hills got into a rhythm early on Friday, as Jacksonville (4-4) quarterback Tommy Grady found him for four scores in the second half. After scoring two more touchdowns in the third quarter, Hills crossed the goal line for a seventh time in the final minute of the game. With that play, Hills became first player in team history to catch seven touchdowns in a single contest, breaking a franchise record that he had previously tied in the 2015 season. But Hills wasn’t done, as he scored for the eighth time with 28 seconds left in the contest.

Finishing the game with 15 receptions for 173 yards and those eight scores, Hills became just the second player in Arena Football League history to catch eight or more touchdowns in a single game. Kevin Prentiss holds the all-time League record, putting up nine scores in a game with the Las Vegas Gladiators in 2007.

After winning the coin toss and deferring their option to the second half, the Sharks gained the early advantage when Greg Reid intercepted Orlando (7-2) quarterback Randy Hippeard in the red zone on the game’s opening possession. That stop turned into Hills’ first score, as Grady hit him for a two-yard touchdown pass.

From there, the teams traded touchdowns into the final minute of the first half. Grady found Hills for scores of 31, 1 and 6 yards, while Hippeard tossed three first-half touchdowns of his own. After Hills’ fourth touchdown of the game gave his team a 26-21 lead with 25 seconds left in the first half, Jacksonville’s defense came up big in the final seconds, forcing the Predators into a long-distance heave that fell incomplete as time expired.

Coming out of the locker room with a five-point lead, the Sharks received the opening kickoff and took advantage, as Grady hit Hills for an eight-yard score that gave Jacksonville the game’s first two-score edge, 33-21.

After another exchange of scores, the Sharks turned in their third defensive stop of the game, courtesy of a heads-up play by Reid. Hippeard’s throw sailed over the head of his intended receiver and bounced off the side wall into the arms of Reid, who recognized that the ball was live and secured his second interception of the night. A few plays later, Derrick Ross powered in from a yard out to give the Sharks a three-score lead, 47-28.

But Orlando did not go quietly. After a four-yard pass from Hippeard to Larry Brackins pulled the Predators within 12 points, Orlando’s defense clamped down on Jacksonville’s receivers and forced a turnover on downs. That stop turned into a score, as Hippeard and Brackins connected again, as a nine-yard touchdown toss brought the Predators back within one score, 47-42.

At that point, the Sharks could ill afford another mistake, and they did not make one. Orlando tried a pair of onside kicks in the final minute of the game, the Sharks retained possession on both occasions. Hills slipped behind the defense on the first play of each ensuing drive, as his seventh and eighth scores ensured that Orlando never had the ball with a change to take the lead. While Greg Carr did haul in a deflected pass for a touchdown as time expired, Orlando’s comeback fell short as the Sharks held on to a three-point victory.

Jacksonville has now won consecutive games for the first time this season, and has an opportunity to make up more ground in the American Conference in the coming weeks. The Sharks will play the first-place Philadelphia Soul next week before hosting the Predators on June 18.

In the victory, Grady completed 26 of his 38 passes for 280 yards and eight touchdowns – all to Hills. Beyond Hills’ historic day, Tiger Jones collected eight receptions for 79 yards, while Andrew Robustelli caught three passes for 28 yards in his first career start. Ross finished with 23 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.

On defense, Reid led the Sharks with 9.5 total tackles to go along with his two interceptions, as he is now tied for the AFL lead with six picks through eight games. Making his season debut – and first AFL appearance since 2010 – Neefy Moffett recorded 2.5 total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble to lead Jacksonville’s pass rush.

For Orlando, Hippeard went 24-for-35 for 251 yards and six touchdowns against just three picks. Brandon Thompkins racked up 10 receptions for 121 yards and two scores and also returned a kickoff for a touchdown, while Brackins scored on three of his four catches. Varmah Sonie led Orlando with nine solo tackles.

The Sharks will take the field looking for their third straight win next week, as the team hosts the Philadelphia Soul on Saturday, June 4. Kickoff from Sea Best Field is set for 7 p.m.

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