Rockets bring fans' excitement back to football final
TOLONO — Football fever hasn't been this contagious in southern Champaign County in three years.
That's how long it's been since Unity High School went to the state championship game — 2009. So there's plenty of excitement that the Rockets, on a 10-game winning streak, are going for the Class 3A title against 12-1 Aurora Christian at 4 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.
There will be a rally at the school after the game, win or lose, at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
"We want them to know, win or lose, we're still proud of them," senior parent Pam Negangard said.
On game day itself, fans are meeting early and forming a caravan following the players' bus heading for Memorial Stadium at 1:15 p.m.
The fans will then head to Tent City for a 2 p.m. tailgate at the Unity tent, which is the third from the west. After that, the Rocket faithful will move into their designated area on the west side of the stadium, and Unity will be the visiting team. The Unity Rocket Marching Band and Color Guard will perform at halftime.
Negangard hopes to fill all 10,000 seats on the stadium's west side with a sea of maroon.
"That's the goal," she said. "A lot of Unity alumni will be home for Thanksgiving."
Football is big at Unity, a 482-student school that includes students from Tolono, Philo, Sidney, Pesotum and Sadorus.
Unity has frequently been conference champion, but Friday will be the first time it competes for a state championship since 2009.
"The last three weeks have been exciting, nerve-racking, a lot of tension, it's been good," Negangard said. "We want everybody on the team to stay healthy."
There is a booklet of instructions that gets passed down to the senior parents each year, according to Negangard. The booklet tells at what point in the season to do certain things, like painting rockets on the roads around the school and putting signs in front of players' homes.
"It's really all about tradition," she said. "Each group adds a little bit. Coach (Scott) Hamilton is also all about tradition."
And there are the signs.
"We've been making sign after sign," Negangard said. "Wherever the team is coming from, we move them to those roads."
Those signs are now around the school and marking the 9-mile route down County Road 1200E and Champaign's First Street to Memorial Stadium.
The senior parents arrange for fireworks after each Unity touchdown, which are provided by the Tolono-based Boom Boom Boys pyrotechnics group with the help of donations.
The players "look forward to it," Negangard said. "If it weren't there, I think they would miss it. It's one of those traditional things."
Negangard has been busily sending out e-mails and posting Facebook updates to help rally the community behind the team. This year, for the first time, the IHSA is allowing noisemakers and signs during the championship game, so Negangard is trying to spread the word that fans can bring their cowbells and plastic jug noisemakers.
"You want to make a statement," she said. "People start to take pride in the school and team."
Evidence that Unity has a football team playing in a state championship game hasn't been as obvious in the hallways of the school, where decorations were not as ubiquitous as they would be at many schools.
"We try to treat it like a regular week," junior running back Conner Grace said. "Among the players, we talk about it a lot, and the student body asks us questions, but we try to do practice and focus on that."
Grace admits there is some pressure to do well but said the community support helps.
"We know no matter what happens, they'll always be there by our side and have our backs," Grace said.
Grace's parents, Randy and Lisa, note that Unity often has more fans in the stands at away games than the home team. Lisa Grace bought 27 tickets for family members at the Unity school office Tuesday.
"Everybody follows the team and has great support for them," Lisa Grace said. "A lot of people who don't have children in the program ask how the teams are doing."
"You have alumni that come back, and they're excited," Randy Grace said. "It's always been a close-knit community of people."
Lisa Grace added that social networking allows fans to share photos from the games and noted that two fans who do that are former football moms whose sons haven't been in the program for years.
Lisa Grace recalled that in Unity's quarterfinal game at Williamsville, fans came together for a tailgate where everyone shared food.
"That was really fun," she said.