Hamilton: 'Our kids played as well as they could'
CHAMPAIGN — Micah Johnson attends high school and played football for a school whose name embodies the team.
“This team,” Johnson said, “was the most close-knit. I wouldn’t trade any of them. I’ll remember how great of a team we were.”
A season of success — which ended with Friday’s 42-12 Class 3A championship-game loss to Aurora Christian — was a reflection on the number of contributing squad members.
Unity had 53 athletes listed on its championship-game roster. During the course of the 14-game season, 27 started at least one game.
Coach Scott Hamilton’s commitment to creating two platoons meant 21 different athletes started on either offense or defense against Aurora Christian.
“I’ve played with these seniors since sixth grade,” junior defensive end Anthony Vasquez said. “I’ll remember how great they were. These games have all gone by so fast.”
Unity put itself in position for some fourth-quarter heroics based on a stellar third period when the defense had its back to the wall.
Hamilton elected not to punt from his own territory on consecutive fourth-down plays to open the second half.
“I felt we had a better chance at a first down than punting it 10 yards,” Hamilton said. “Punting into the wind wouldn’t accomplish much.”
Aurora Christian took over on the Rockets’ 32 and the Rockets’ 42 in the third quarter, but neither time gained a first down despite having the wind at its back. On each possession, fourth-down passes were incomplete. The first was broken up by Unity senior Mitch Negangard.
“It was a little bit us and a little bit Mother Nature that made it tough for them to throw the ball,” Hamilton said. “We got pressure on the quarterback, and he started to get the ball out of his hands a little quicker than he wanted.”
A Unity strength throughout the season was again in force against the Eagles. Ends Vasquez and senior Jared Abrahamson finished the season second and tied for third on the team in tackles, behind middle linebacker Negangard.
“Those two defensive linemen have given us great play all year long,” Hamilton said. “From the standpoint of what was good today, our defensive line was fantastic. Those two played great and gave us a chance.”
The effort was exemplary.
“We played our hardest,” Johnson said.
For 31/2 quarters, the performance was what Unity needed to contend.
“We stopped them on defense, but the offense couldn’t pick it back up,” Abrahamson said. “They got a couple (touchdowns), and it snowballed from there.”
Hamilton said the memory he will retain the longest is not the final score but what he saw from his players.
“Small-town Unity showed up and played a (heck) of a game,” he said. “We want to win one of these things really bad, but a loss in four of them is better than not getting to them at all.
“We felt we were in good position in the fourth quarter but, like last year, it unraveled a little bit. Our kids played as well as they could. It’s a great group, and they’ve been a joy to coach. We didn’t have any issues this year.”
What they had was clear: Unity.