CHAMPAIGN — Darkness fell on Memorial Stadium Friday during the playing of the IHSA Class 3A state championship football game.
For Unity’s Rockets, it meant lights out.
Unity scored twice — during the daylight portion of the contest — but defending champion Aurora Christian scored four touchdowns during the final 8:01 and pulled away for a 42-12 triumph.
“I truly think each one of us played to our best,” Unity senior defensive lineman Jared Abrahamson said. “We have reason to keep our heads held high.”
Those looking only at the score might call the Eagles’ win a blowout. Don Beebe knows otherwise, the Aurora Christian coach saying, “We were in a game. For three quarters, we were playing chess.
“I was still worried with four minutes left (leading 21-12). When the other team has kids like No. 3 (senior Mitch Negangard) and No. 15 (senior Micah Johnson), you never think it’s over. That No. 3 is a heck of a football player. I told him that three times after the game.”
Aurora Christian (13-1) scored with 1:04 left in the second quarter to take its first lead, 14-12. The margin was unchanged through a scoreless third period, even though the Eagles had the wind for the 12-minute quarter.
“This is two years in a row I thought we had them where we wanted going into the fourth quarter,” said Unity coach Scott Hamilton, whose Rockets lost to the Eagles in 2011 in Aurora.
Unity — which dominated the time of possession — had the game’s longest drive, 15 plays, end on a missed 28-yard field goal attempt by senior Cody Payne with 8:01 left in the fourth period. His kick, which could have lifted the Rockets into a 15-14 lead, hit the left crossbar and bounced out.
Two plays later, one of Aurora Christian’s three Northern Illinois scholarship recruits, Joel Bouagnon, burst through left guard and raced 60 yards for a TD.
With the wind — measured at 20 mph at kickoff — a factor, Unity virtually disdained the passing game that featured 1,000-yard passer junior Justin Deters. When the Aurora lead grew to 21-12, the Rockets had thrown two passes.
Hamilton, who gambled four times on third-quarter fourth-down plays from his own territory (with two succeeding), couldn’t continue to play the cautious possession game.
“We could have sat on it, and the score wouldn’t have looked the way it is,” he said, “but we didn’t come here to play close.”
Deters had consecutive possessions end with interceptions, the second of which Northern Illinois recruit Brandon Mayes returned 75 yards for a score.
“Aurora Christian is a momentum team, and they took it and rolled with it,” said Unity receiver Johnson, who had both of the Rockets’ receptions but was held to 15 yards. “When we can’t pass, it changes a lot. The wind was definitely a factor, but it was a factor for them, too.
“It came down to the team that executed, and we didn’t execute in a couple of areas.”
Beebe said the weather forced him to deviate from his original game plan.
“The whole week at practice, we were spread, spread, spread (offense),” he said. “Last night, we thought we’d better put in some more two-back plays. We called the offensive linemen into my hotel room and drew up three more two-back plays.”
Unity’s fourth championship-game appearance since 2000 ended in the manner of the first three. With a loss.
Beebe said there’s no reason, however, to blame Hamilton.
“What he has done in 19 years is most remarkable,” he said, referring to the Rockets’ 19 straight playoff berths under Hamilton. “He takes a back seat to no one in the state of Illinois.
“No question, Scott is a Hall of Fame coach and a class individual. It’s neat to coach against other guys who are classy guys.”
Unity junior Conner Grace ran for 99 yards and also led the Rockets with seven tackles. Negangard, who scored the two TDs that staked Unity to a 12-0 lead after one quarter, rushed for 94 yards and became the third Rocket this season with at least 1,000 yards on the ground. He ended with 1,050 rushing yards, joining Grace and Deters.
“It came down to them making a couple more big plays,” Negangard said. “We’ll be proud when we look back someday. I’ll remember the atmosphere. We have one of the best communities in the world, and that support means a lot.”
Unity (12-2) had a 10-game winning streak snapped.