Rockets in familiar spot — barely
WILLIAMSVILLE — Nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie outside the visiting locker room at Paul Jenkins Field in Williamsville, Cody Payne still had a look of disbelief on his face.
Ten minutes earlier, Payne came through with one of the most clutch kicks in Unity football history.
Kicking into a stiff wind with late-afternoon shadows creeping in on the edge of the Rockets’ sideline, Payne made a 20-yard field goal as time expired to give Unity a 10-7 win against host Williamsville in a Class 3A quarterfinal game.
“I was just trying to calm down, not let the nerves get the best of me and just do business,” Payne said. “That’s what we came here for. It was a business trip.”
It is business as usual for the Rockets (11-1). Unity advanced to the 3A semifinals for the fourth straight year and ninth time in veteran coach Scott Hamilton’s 19-year tenure. The Rockets will host Greenville (12-0) next weekend after the Comets won 49-38 at Carterville on Saturday. Unity beat Greenville 58-53 in an epic 3A semifinal game in 2009.
“That’s quite a record,” Unity senior receiver Micah Johnson said of the semifinal streak. “Most of it’s really good coaching, and we’ve always got really good kids. We got two more games, and we’re hoping to make it to Memorial Stadium.”
With Unity on Williamsville’s 3-yard line facing a fourth and goal, Hamilton called his final timeout with two seconds left. All game long, punts and kicks going into the wind had difficulty gaining any substantial positive yardage. That’s why it was a bit of a surprise to see Payne trot out to attempt the game-winning field goal.
“I knew that there was going to be a chance I had to kick it if we couldn’t put it in,” Payne said. “I tried to aim it a little bit into the wind, but the wind still took it.”
A solid snap by Kendall Neverman with a good hold by Mitchell Snodgrass set up Payne’s heroics. When he hit the ball with his right foot from the right hashmark, the ball knuckled in the wind, hooking left. But it stayed inside the uprights, setting off a Unity celebration while Williamsville players collapsed on the field.
“I knew that on the last play we wanted to try to run the ball in the middle of the field to give him an opportunity to win,” Hamilton said. “It was an easy decision for me to kick it. The kid’s done this several times, and we’ll continue to ride that if we have that opportunity.”
Payne helped Unity beat Decatur St. Teresa in Week 6 his sophomore year with a game-winning field goal.
“This is so much bigger being in a playoff game like this that’s so far in the playoffs,” Payne said. “It’s great.”
Great is an apt way to describe the defense played by both teams. The Bullets (11-1) had shut out eight opponents and only allowed 22 points before Saturday.
But Unity held Williamsville to 97 yards of offense while Unity managed 220. Senior linebacker Kolson McFall came through with a sack for the Rockets while seniors Gage Bolt (eight tackles) and Mitch Negangard (seven tackles) spearheaded Unity’s defense.
“Our coaches do a great job preparing us,” said Negangard, who added 80 rushing yards on 18 carries, including 26 yards on seven carries on the final drive. “We all stayed together.”
Williamsville led 7-0 at halftime thanks to a 1-yard quarterback sneak by junior Josh Lindsey with 4:28 left in the second quarter. A fumble by the Rockets set up a 41-yard scamper by Lindsey on a busted play, and Lindsey bulled his way in the end zone four plays later.
Trailing 7-0, Unity got on the board in the third quarter after forcing a three-and-out following a punt that pinned Williamsville at its own 5-yard line. When the Rockets received the ball at their own 34, it took Unity four plays to score — on a Conner Grace 3-yard run — only the fourth TD against Williamsville all season.
Junior running back Conner Grace (game-high 98 yards on 24 carries) found his way into the end zone from 3 yards out, and Payne’s extra point tied the game at 7.
A 26-yard completion from junior Justin Deters (2 of 9 for 23 yards) to Johnson keyed the touchdown drive.
“They were shutting me out on the perimeter,” Johnson said. “They left the middle open, so we decided to go on about a 6-yard quick slant. I caught it at first, and tried to get whatever I could after it. My team finished it for me.”
Unity’s game-winning field goal was set up by a lucky bounce on special teams. Williamsville held Unity on fourth down, and while Derek Hooker’s punt only traveled 4 yards into the wind, it hit off a Williamsville player. Unity recovered at the Bullets’ 38-yard line with 4:33 left to play.
“Our kids came over here and played their hearts out,” Hamilton said.
Johnson couldn’t bear to watch Payne’s kick in the waning seconds.
“I said a quick prayer, and somebody was listening,” Negangard said. “I saw the ball dive in just by the left field goal post. I don’t know how to describe it. It was just a great feeling.”
Payne echoed those sentiments.
“I couldn’t see it from where I was at,” Payne said. “I held my breath and waited for the refs to give me the sign. I didn’t know what to do, so I just started celebrating.”