TOLONO — Unity’s football team is better than it was in Week 3.
The Rockets are also better because of the events of that third game.
A two-touchdown halftime lead wasn’t safe and the school lost a home game to Central A&M. It was an attention-grabbing moment for a team that has been transformed into a headline-grabbing unit with seven consecutive wins.
The latest triumph was Saturday’s 46-8 runaway against Pana in a Class 3A playoff game at Hicks Field. It’s the 15th time since 1996 that a Scott Hamilton-coached Unity team has reached at least the second round.
“That loss helped us,” said Mitch Negangard, who scored three touchdowns against the Panthers. “It taught us we were not unbeatable. It brought us back to reality.”
The reality of Saturday was a near-perfect first half.
Unity (9-1) scored on each of its first six possessions. When the Rockets’ lead reached 40-0 with less than 90 seconds left in the first half, Pana had not yet secured a first down.
“Our goal was to come out early and leave no doubt in anyone’s mind,” quarterback Justin Deters said.
“Making a statement early was big for us,” Negangard said.
Deters, too, said the third-week setback was ultimately beneficial.
“It came a week after we beat Maroa and were on a high,” Deters said. “It was like, ‘Who’s gonna beat us?’ We needed that wakeup to refocus and retool. Now, we’ve proven we’re a team to contend with.”
Deters rushed for one TD, passed for one and accounted for 186 yards of offense (126 through the air) against Pana.
“That first half was a pretty good performance for us to build on,” Hamilton said. “We did the things we wanted, even more so on defense. We were able to shut down the running game, keep pressure on the quarterback and forced them into long-yardage situations.”
As for the Week 3 loss, Hamilton said, “it’s a matter of growing over the course of the season. Our goal is to be playing our best this time of the year.”
Conner Grace got Unity started with a 15-yard run on the game’s first play from scrimmage. After the team’s first 18 plays, it had eight first downs and a 20-0 lead. Grace and Negangard scored on short runs before kicker Cody Payne hauled in a 33-yard pass for a score, keeping his focus on a ball that was underthrown and tipped by a Pana defender before winding up in his arms a few yards from the goal line.
“We caught a break on that tipped pass,” Hamilton said. “When things go well, sometimes they fall into place. The goal is to win and move on.”
A secondary goal was also achieved. Unity dressed all 70 of its athletes who were involved with the program at season’s end. The second half belonged to the more than four dozen Rockets who didn’t start on either offense or defense.
“Every kid in the program dressed, and every kid played,” Hamilton said. “I like the opportunity to get those kids in. It’s a lot more valuable to get kids playing time than to get a shutout.”
With the running clock secured, Hamilton removed all of his regulars at halftime. The second unit marched down and scored the team’s sixth rushing TD, a 10-yard run by Damian Hardy.
Offensively, Unity amassed 417 yards against Pana (5-5) and limited the Panthers to 127 yards. Eleven Rockets either had rushing attempts or caught passes. The leaders were Grace (80 yards rushing), Tyler Lindsey (71 yards receiving) and Negangard (70 yards rushing).
The same balance was exhibited on defense. Jared Abrahamson, Colton Reed, Mitchell Snodgrass and Anthony Vasquez all had four tackles. Cole Swearingen had an interception and 22-yard return. Abrahamson and Wynn Burroughs recovered fumbles.
Unity, ranked fifth in the final Class 3A state poll, will host Pleasant Plains (9-1 with a seven-game winning
streak) in a second-round game next Saturday.
“It’s important that we enjoy today, get up tomorrow and get back at it,” Hamilton said. “They are a team that runs the ball right at you. This time of year, last week doesn’t matter — or even yesterday.”