TOLONO — Dave Fink started teaching science at Unity Junior High the same year that Scott Hamilton began teaching mathematics in the same building.
It took three years from their first meeting in 1994 before they started working together after the school day ended. Fink is now in his 16th year on the Rockets’ football staff and in his 14th season serving as Hamilton’s defensive coordinator.
Fink and Hamilton are two of three staff members who’ve been around for all four of Unity’s state championship-game appearances.
When Friday’s 4 p.m. Class 3A title game starts against Aurora Christian at Memorial Stadium, the other veteran on the Rockets’ sideline will be Bob Case, whose 22-year tenure predates Hamilton’s arrival 19 years ago.
All 19 of Hamilton’s seasons have ended with Unity qualifying for the playoffs.
“One thing that stands out is the stability and loyalty we’ve had with the coaching staff,” Hamilton said. “Some work with the freshmen or JV, but I consider them all varsity assistants.
“Our guys are all on the same page.”
Neither Fink nor Case has viewed his years in football as a steppingstone.
“I have no desire to be a head football coach,” Fink said. “Head coaches are more offensive-minded, and I’ve always been a defensive coach.”
Fink had a stint as the Rockets’ softball coach, which satisfied that craving, and he’s now in the ideal situation.
“I get to go to work with all my best friends,” Fink said.
The mind-set within the Unity football program is to expect success.
“We start off with the intention of not just making the playoffs but making a long run,” Fink said.
There are some traits that were prevalent on the Rockets’ 2000, 2005 and 2009 championship-game teams as well as the current squad.
“It’s similar in how we’ve been playing down the stretch,” Fink said. “We’re doing a good job of improving all year long.”
One characteristic about this year’s team, Fink said, is “they’ve jelled as well as any. They respond to coaching and are fun to be with.”
Fink said the first championship-game appearance was special because of the newness of it, but added, “In 2000, I wondered if we could ever make it back,” he said. “Now, we think the opportunity is always there.”
Case opted to become a volunteer coach 10 years ago. As the school’s wrestling head coach, he said it wouldn’t be fair to either team to have his attention divided during the overlapping portion of their seasons.
The wrestling team had a JV match Tuesday and has varsity matches scheduled at home Saturday morning against three opponents.
“I became a volunteer coach when the kids (now 8 and 5) were born,” Case said. “I needed to step back a little bit.”
Like Fink, Case is not a wanna-be head football coach.
“Being a head coach in two sports is way too much,” Case said, “and I love coaching wrestling. If I were coaching both (as head coach), I think I’d do poorly at both.”
Case works primarily with the freshmen.
Three Unity assistants will coach in their third championship game: Dave Bass, Rich Bonnell and Tony Reetz. All three joined the staff in 2004. Bonnell has been a volunteer the entire time. He focuses on receivers and defensive backs “and handles our no-huddle stuff,” Hamilton said.
Bass coordinates the special teams, and Reetz serves as offensive coordinator and shares play-calling duties with Hamilton.
The other paid coach is Monticello native Patrick Striegel, the freshman head coach who also works with running backs and safeties.
Three other volunteer coaches will make their coaching debuts at state, though two of them have experienced the atmosphere. Collin Davis was a two-year line starter at Unity and captain for the 2005 state runner-up team. He works with tight ends and defensive linemen in his first year as an assistant.
Second-year assistant Kyle Tutt quarterbacked Iroquois West’s 2003 state championship team. He works with receivers and defensive backs.
Former Heritage athlete Nick Lindsey is in his third year working with Hamilton. The former Eureka College standout tutors the quarterbacks and also the inside linebackers.
It’s not a coincidence, Hamilton said, that junior Justin Deters has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in passing during his first year as a varsity regular.
“Coach Lindsey has done a great job with his mechanics and reads, and Justin has been able to get the ball to the right spots,” Hamilton said.
The nucleus of the Unity staff has been together long enough, Hamilton said, that it alleviates pressure on him.
“I’ve been able to delegate a lot more stuff,” Hamilton said, “and I have a lot more trust because they’ve been with me for a long time.”