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TOLONO — Twenty-nine individuals wearing Unity gear descended upon the Gary Fisher family farm Thursday evening. A short walk through an attached field of soybeans would put them on the Unity High School campus.

The reason for their gathering: to recognize the Rockets as The News-Gazette’s 2020-21 high school Program of the Year. For the second consecutive school year and third time since the award was first handed out in 2005.

“It meant the world that we got this honor to be the sports school of the year,” said 2021 graduate Lane Innes, the reigning All-Area football Player of the Year.

“As a program, we did so well,” added senior Taylor Henry, who earned the most recent All-Area softball Player of the Year award. “As I go into my senior year and as the freshmen come in, I think it’s very important that we keep continuing to do well.”

Unity took top honors in the Program of the Year chase through a different combination of success than the Rockets experienced last year.

Fall and winter sports teams like football, cross-country, basketball and wrestling had to carry all of the water for Unity last time around when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 IHSA spring sports campaign.

In this instance, the Rockets still received strong contributions from traditional fall and winter programs. But Unity also garnered a major boost from athletes on such springtime fronts as softball and track and field, making up for time lost the previous year.

When it was pointed out to Henry that the Rockets secured Program of the Year status over the likes of Illini Prairie Conference rivals St. Joseph-Ogden and Monticello, she acknowledged that as a cherry on top.

“As a whole program, to be better than St. Joe and our rivals,” Henry said, “it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Innes’ pride in Unity athletics was evident, as well, through his assessment of the Rockets’ latest accolade.

“We don’t apologize for being the best team out there,” Innes said. “Our coaches are the best. Everybody we have here is the best. And it just goes to prove that every year we come out and be the best school out here.”

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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