TOLONO — Karson Ewerks was there.
On a cold, windy afternoon in late November, the eighth-grader watched in agony with other Unity football fans as the Rockets suffered a 50-7 loss to Kankakee Bishop McNamara in the Class 3A state championship bout.
“It was kind of a brutal game,” said Ewerks, now a senior lineman for that same Unity team. “(The Irish) were very good, but I think we’re ready to help that team out ... and bring revenge back for them.”
The way the Rockets (9-1) could do that?
By knocking off Bishop McNamara (7-3) in the Class 4A postseason’s second round, when the sides meet at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Kankakee.
“It’s something that everybody just knows,” Ewerks said. “Other people are reminding us, ‘Oh, Bishop Mac. Isn’t that who we lost to 50-7?’ ... But we’re more prepared, and we’re ready for this challenge.”
There’s no doubt it’ll be a challenge.
Irish coach Rich Zinanni’s 45th team boasts a balanced offense, paced by quarterback Tyler Hiller’s 1,614 passing yards and fullback Owen Jackson’s 1,113 rushing yards.
But Unity, a program known under coach Scott Hamilton for its ground efforts, has its own multi-threat attack.
Nate Reinhart and his offensive line are the reason for that.
Even as junior back Hank Cain has carried the pigskin more than 200 times this season, the senior quarterback Reinhart has attempted 185 passes and completed them at a 62.7 percent rate.
“Last year, I was way more of a running quarterback than I was passing,” said Reinhart, who used his feet 34 times in 2018 versus exercising his arm 31 times — albeit not as the full-time playcaller.
“I was not nearly as good at passing as I am this year, so that’s what I worked on in the offseason,” Reinhart continued. “Trying to drive the ball in tighter holes and get a spiral and make it easy for my receivers.”
Making things simpler for Reinhart have been Ewerks and his fellow O-linemen.
Ewerks, Griffin Sullivan and Cam Scott saw key minutes in the trenches during a 4-5 previous season and are applying lessons learned in that difficult stretch to the Rockets’ ongoing success.
“It just gave us a boost in that we want to come out and prove everyone wrong,” Ewerks said. “We watch enough (film) to where we know what (the defensive linemen) like to eat for breakfast. We’ve got to know how they step and how they react to certain plays.”
Unity’s increased emphasis on passing also is a product of “a lot of three-and-outs” forced by the Rockets’ defense, according to Hamilton.
“We’re not afraid to run it 45, 50 times. We’re not afraid to throw it 30 times,” Hamilton said. “When you’re able to do both of those things, I think it just makes (us) better.”
It’s hard to overlook Reinhart’s growth under center, though.
A chief example of this came in the third quarter of Unity’s first-round postseason win last week versus Clinton.
Reinhart — with ample time provided by Ewerks and pals — flicked a pass that tear-dropped over the hands of a leaping defender and into the chest of receiver Nathan Drennan.
“We’re comfortable passing the ball. We always have been,” Reinhart said. “When we still need to run the ball, we can still get the chance to and still do it good because we’ve been doing it all season. But, if it comes down to it, we’ll be able to throw the ball, too. No problem.”