Unity sends seniors out on high note
TOLONO — Sports, in the most basic form, are numbers games. How many wins? How many points?
For those totals to remain consistently at fan-pleasing levels, another number becomes vital in the equation.
Unity football coach Scott Hamilton recognized years ago the value of keeping student interest up. It has been his formula for success with a program that is assured of a playoff berth for the 19th consecutive year.
Senior Night was Friday at Unity’s Hicks Field. It took awhile to get through the introductions. Thanks to three Clinton turnovers on its first three possessions, it took less time for the Rockets to get started on their way to a 47-28 Okaw Valley Conference Black Division victory against the Maroons.
Most of Unity’s 20 seniors were on the field beyond their pregame appearance with family. Fourteen play regularly, either on offense or defense. They were responsible for starting Unity’s fifth successive win and moving the 7-1 team one step closer to a first-round home playoff game.
“We expect a lot of kids to play,” Hamilton said. “We don’t lose many kids in the program. If we start with 22 or 24 as freshmen, we probably have 16 to 18 at the finish.”
By Hamilton’s desire to create separate platoons for offense and defense, there are expanded chances to perform under the lights.
“We give seniors the first opportunity,” Hamilton said. “We talk to the going-to-be seniors about having an opportunity to play, what the expectations are and they buy into that because they have seen it has happened in the past.
“We play some juniors at the JV to get them some experience, so when they’re seniors they will be ready to go. That recipe has worked out well.”
Some of the current seniors — such as linebacker Mitch Negangard and receiver Micah Johnson (sidelined with an ankle injury) — were in the lineup last fall. Others are now making the most of their final shot.
Senior tackle Christian Moore played little as a junior. Now he’s the starting right tackle. Wide receiver Derek Hooker is another regular who has emerged on offense. Same for Ben Tate, a part-time right guard and top line sub.
“These kids are similar to many who have played here,” Hamilton said. “They have committed themselves over the course of time to get ready for this opportunity. When you get that senior leadership, it keeps the young kids going.
“Where programs struggle are when they don’t have good senior leaders. I can’t say enough about this group of seniors, the leadership they have shown. They have battled through tough games and hung in there.”
The defensive unit has similar stories of success. Michael Holladay and Cody Payne are fixtures in the secondary. Payne lettered the last two years, but his role was as a kicker. He has expanded his contributions this year.
“These kids did not have very big roles as position players as juniors,” Hamilton said, “but they have stepped into huge roles as seniors.”
Other senior starters are defensive tackles Jared Abrahamson and Logan Sehie, linebackers Gage Bolt and Kolson McFall along with offensive linemen Kendall Neverman, Joel Ping and Cameron Swearingen.
Most were young fans of Unity football before they became prominent Unity athletes.
“We don’t get many kids that move in,” Hamilton said, “but we don’t have many families that move out. The fact that they have grown up in our system really helps.”
Abrahamson was one of the Rockets’ many leaders. He recovered two fumbles, the first of which he fell on in the end zone for a TD.
“Our defense performed like it should,” Abrahamson said. “That swung things to our favor.”
Scoring his first varsity touchdown on Senior Night was a bonus. “That means a lot more than any other night,” Abrahamson said.
Unity’s offense amassed 425 total yards. Conner Grace, who only played in the first half, rushed for a game-high 105 yards on nine carries. He scored two touchdowns.
Quarterback Justin Deters added 97 rushing yards and three TDs. He completed 6 of 10 passes for 70 yards. Tyler Lindsey hauled in three receptions for 42 yards.
“Good things happen when you get turnovers,” Hamilton said. “We came out aggressive and that allowed it to snowball.
“Our D-line has been the strength of our team. Jared, Logan, Anthony (Vasquez) and Tyler (Crowl) were all very consistent.”
The early turnovers set up Unity for short-field drives, but when it needed to move the ball, Deters led 97-yard and 84-yard scoring marches in the second quarter. His 9-yard run with 8:09 left in the third period lifted the Rockets into a 47-6 lead and created a running clock the remainder of the game.