HIGHLANDS RANCH — This Hopper kid, he's a weapon. Combine him with a quarterback like Brody Westmoreland, and back the two up with a defense like that? Yeah, this team could go far.
Wide receiver Mark Hopper had two touchdowns and 153 yards as ThunderRidge easily handled Dakota Ridge, 30-7, in the opener for both teams on Thursday night at Shea Stadium.
"I knew he would be a good threat for us," said Grizzlies coach Joe Johnson.
Hopper, a senior, is coming off a season in which he had 568 yards receiving and five touchdowns. But Thursday night was easily the best game of his career. The seven catches, 153 yards and two scores were all career highs.
"I felt really good today," Hopper said after the game.
His best catch of the night was the back-breaker, and came late in the second quarter after Westmoreland rolled to his right and lofted a pass toward the end zone. A Dakota Ridge defender tipped the ball at the goal line, but Hopper, while falling backwards near the end line, was able to haul it in.
Dakota Ridge had been hanging around up to that point, but that score gave ThunderRidge a 21-0 lead just before the half.
"Me and Hopper have had a connection since we were 7 years old. We've known each other forever," Westmoreland said. "We've been best friends ever since, and we've just always been on the same ball field — either baseball or football — and just tearing it up together."
Said Hopper: "We have the best chemistry. We're best friends in school, always go to lunch together. He just always knows where I'm at, and that really helps."
Westmoreland, the Grizzlies' longtime starter, finished the game 10-for-10 with 204 yards and two touchdowns through the air. He also had 84 yards and another score on the ground.
"He's a big-timer for us," Johnson said of Westmoreland. "He's very confident. Sometimes, he corrects me when I get us in the wrong formation: 'No, we've got to do this, coach.' 'Yeah, you're right. Call that.' He's just a great kid, and a great leader for us, too. And has been for a long time, not just this year."
Running back Matt Stanley, a junior, finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns while rushing behind a solid offensive line that includes top recruit Sam Jones.
ThunderRidge's defense was tested, especially because the offense lost four fumbles. But the unit more than did its part, allowing just 68 yards on the ground — though Dakota Ridge quarterback Braxton Thais did have a good night with 201 yards and a touchdown pass.
"I was very pleased," Johnson said. "I was more happy with our defense than our offense, to be honest. I thought we played real well. I think they're a good offensive football team. They do some things well, that kid throws the ball well."
Linebacker Tyler Seno had two interception for the Grizzlies.
ThunderRidge, ranked third in CHSAANow.com's Class 5A football poll, ended last season with a defeat to eventual champion Valor Christian in the semifinals. Many are expecting this team to reach at least that point again in 2013.
"They are pretty high, the expectations, but I think we've got good leaders who keep us under control," Hopper said.