By MICHAEL S. BURICH
Assistant Sports Editor
COLUMBIANA - On any other team in the Inter-Tri County League, Crestview senior Matt Hardenbrook would be a star attraction.
"We've said that a number of times," Crestview coach Paul Cusick said. "If Nick Blower wasn't our running back, (Hardenbrook) would be. He'd be a 1,000-yard rusher easy. He has those types of skills. He's a physical kid and he loves playing that physical-type of game."
Hardenbrook has 59 carries for 612 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns this season. He's also caught eight passes for 116 yards. On defense, he's posted 51 tackles and leads the team with four interceptions. He also has two fumble recoveries.
"Throughout the season Matt has made big plays," Cusick said. "Whenever we want him to counter or throw a pass play, he's making a big play. Everyone kind of looks at Collin (Gilbert) and Nick (Blower) and flies to them. We counter that with Matt and he does the job. He's a warrior on both sides of the ball and he's a kid that will give you every ounce of energy he has."
A 40-yard go-ahead touchdown run and an interception on a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter against Louisville St. Thomas Aquinas played a large part in preserving Crestview's 51-50 victory on Saturday in a first-round game at Rebel Stadium.
"You have to have a sense of urgency," Hardenbrook said. "I didn't want that to be our last game. I knew we could get it done."
Last season, he had 36 carries for 174 yards and six touchdowns in more of a limited role. He also had eight catches for 95 yards and a touchdown. He served as an understudy to standout senior Tom Oliver on defense and garnered 34 tackles.
Cusick refers to Hardenbrook as an H-back in the offensive scheme. That does not mean he's a halfback. It's more of a hybrid according to the coach.
"He's perfect for that because he has to do so much," Cusick said.
Hardenbrook, who is by far the most imposing skill player on the team at 6-foot, 185 pounds, said he doesn't mind being lost in the shuffle.
"We have a lot of depth in our backfield," Hardenbrook said. "Any one of our backs can make a play. As long as we're winning, I don't care."
Against Aquinas, he had a career-high 18 carries for 134 yards as one of three Crestview runners with more than 130 yards. That amount of touches was a rarity for Hardenbrook as he has not seen double digits in carries since the second game of the season against Beaver Local.
"My job is usually just to get the first down and grind out a few extra yards," Hardenbrook said. "On defense I have to contain and watch the underneath."
This Saturday, Hardenbrook and the Rebels' task will switch to the defending Division V state champion Kirtland at Mollenkpof Stadium in Warren. The two teams will go at it in a rematch of last season's regional final in which the Hornets' walked away with a decisive 35-7 victory.
"The game was almost a sad one," Hardenbrook said. "They were just capitalizing on every mistake we made. I feel like we're more prepared for them this year. We have to be perfect and not make any mistakes."