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TOLONO — The charter buses will arrive at Unity High School on Friday morning.

Waiting to take more than 60 football players, 10 coaches and other assorted team personnel to DeKalb for the 4 p.m. Class 3A state championship game against fellow unbeaten Byron and a chance for the 13-0 Rockets to make history.

Unity has never won a state title in football before. The Rockets have had plenty of chances, though, taking second in 2000 (35-14 loss to Stillman Valley), 2005 (34-7 loss to Bureau Valley), 2009 (52-22 loss to Stillman Valley), 2012 (42-12 loss to Aurora Christian) and 2015 (50-7 loss to Kankakee McNamara).

All games Scott Hamilton led Unity in.

The Hall of Fame coach will get another shot at winning an elusive state title in a coaching career that has seen him achieve everything but celebrating the last game of the season with a win.

“We’ve got to do something different,” Hamilton said with a laugh earlier this month.

The travel aspect is something different for the Rockets this month. Unity last played on the road on Oct. 22, winning 33-27 in overtime at Monticello to win the Illini Prairie Conference championship. Since then, four straight home playoff games.

Now, a three-hour bus ride to Huskie Stadium awaits. The late-afternoon kickoff means a long day for the Rockets and their fans who will make the trip to the campus of Northern Illinois University, but no overnight hotel stay for the team is in the works. This is the second trip to DeKalb for the state-title game for Unity, with the 2015 game taking place there and the other four happening closer to home at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

“I’m not really interested in taking 60 kids up to stay in a hotel and then have all day to wait around,” Hamilton said. “The timing of it allows us to get up there and back the same day.”

One of the key reasons Unity will play on Friday — and it’s a concept Hamilton has stressed all season — is the fact the Rockets don’t have two-way starters.

They likely could, but the ability to keep players fresh and rested is more important to Hamilton. Senior quarterback Blake Kimball handles the Rockets’ punting and standout senior wide receiver Dillon Rutledge takes care of the Rockets’ place-kicking, but that’s about as close to two-way players as Unity uses.

“We play 22 guys, and that really has an effect on the game when other teams are playing both ways and we’re playing 22 guys,” Kimball said. “That really helps us out.”

Turf talkHuskie Stadium sports FieldTurf, just like it did in 2015 when Unity last played there. But six years ago, the Rockets didn’t have turf on their home venue, Hicks Field. Now they do, with the surface being installed prior to the 2019 season.

Unity played nine games at Hicks Field this season — and 12 this year counting the condensed spring season — so they’re well-acclimated to a turf surface. Plus, the Rockets don’t need to buy different shoes like they did in 2000 for their first-ever state championship game appearance at Memorial Stadium because of the upgrades to artificial playing surfaces in the subsequent two decades.

“When we played in 2000, the turf was different,” Hamilton said. “Now, the turf plays a lot like low-cut grass anyway. I don’t really notice a lot of things with it. I don’t know if that has any factor, and I don’t know if we have any advantage, because we’ve played on it.”

Fashion choicesWhen Hamilton first started coaching Unity in 1994, the uniform options were simpler. One set of home jerseys. One set of away jerseys. With the young coach likely telling the Rockets what to wear.

These days, however, the options are more plentiful. And Hamilton leaves it up to his captains — Kimball, Rutledge, linebacker Grant Albaugh and offensive lineman Chance Ingleman — about what uniform they’ll sport.

“I don’t need that distraction,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “I normally don’t find out until our final team meeting the day before the game.”

Unity has worn three different combinations so far in the playoffs, donning maroon pants, maroon jerseys and gray helmets for its 46-6 first-round win against Newton on Oct. 30 before switching it up and going with white pants, maroon jerseys and gray helmets for its 21-14 second-round win against Paxton-Buckley-Loda on Nov. 6. Then, an all-gray look — pants, jerseys and helmets — for the Rockets’ 28-7 quarterfinal win against Williamsville on Nov. 13 on a gray, cloudy afternoon before going back to the all-maroon look with gray helmets for this past Saturday’s 28-21 win against Mt. Carmel in the state semifinals.

One aspect will change for Friday’s game. Unity is the visiting team and will wear white jerseys, Hamilton said.

“White is the only option we have on the top,” Hamilton said. “I have no idea what color pants we’ll wear. I don’t ever know at home if we’re wearing our maroon, our gray or our white until they tell me.”

Sticking to itSome players will have more of them on Friday night than others. What will they have more of? Helmet stickers.

They’re white footballs and are handed out each week during a team meeting, with the players placing the stickers on their helmets themselves.

Stickers are handed out for individual honors Hamilton and his staff decide on, like most valuable offensive lineman or most valuable defensive lineman, and for reaching certain team benchmarks, like rushing for more than 300 yards or compiling 400 yards of total offense.

“I don’t know if they think about it during the game, but man, I’ll tell you what: They fight for those dang stickers on Thursday and Friday nights at our team meetings,” Hamilton said. “If I forget one somehow, they can very quickly remind me.”

Back at stateMitch Negangard started his high school football career at Unity as a freshman member of the 2009 team that made it to the state title game. He ended it in 2012 by playing in the state-title game as a two-way standout at fullback and linebacker, earning News-Gazette All-Area First Team honors by rushing for 1,048 yards and making 100 tackles.

He’ll get the chance to coach in his first state-title game on Friday. After he wrapped up his college career in 2016 at St. Ambrose a first-team all-conference linebacker at the NAIA program in Davenport, Iowa, Negangard returned home and joined Hamilton’s staff in 2017.

He’s a volunteer assistant coach who, naturally, coaches the Rockets’ linebackers. And who admitted after this past Saturday’s win against Mt. Carmel, it’s much less nerve-wracking to play in a state semifinal game than coach in one.

“When you’re playing, you feel like you can make a difference,” Negangard said. “When you’re coaching, you’ve got to sit there and hope the kids make the difference. But we’ve got a lights-out defense and they just play hard.”

Albaugh (92 tackles), junior Boden Franklin (84 tackles, three fumble recoveries) and junior Austin Langendorf (72 tackles) make up the Rockets’ starting linebackers Negangard works with. Adapting to Byron’s wing-T, run-centric offense is a main focus for the group this week in practice. But making the necessary in-game adjustments is another focal point and one the Rockets have done so successfully this season.

“It’s one thing to go in with a gameplan, and if everything goes right, it’s the luckiest game in the world, but that’s never how it goes,” Negangard said. “These guys, they take coaching. They make their adjustments, and they never slow down in the process.”

Adjusting from player to coach was a process for Negangard. But one he seems fully acclimated to now. And he’s glad he gets an up-close view again of Unity reaching the state title game.

“The Unity tradition is nothing but long playoff runs, and as a coach, I hadn’t quite experienced it yet,” Negangard said. “But it’s every bit as sweet as it was 10 years ago.”

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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