Unity FB 2

Unity offensive lineman Karson Ewerks (63) hoists receiver Nate Drennan into the air Saturday after Drennan caught a touchdown pass from Nate Reinhart during the Rockets' 42-14 win over Clinton in the Class 4A playoffs' first round at Tolono.

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TOLONO — Jared Routh and a few of his Unity football teammates split off into a small huddle on the turf at Hicks Field.

They’d just finished their much larger postgame congregation — complete with a birthday song for one of the Rockets’ young ball boys.

The purpose of Routh and his pals huddling up?

To raise their helmets and shout, “One, two, three, shower!”

“We always break out on that,” Routh said. “It’s (teammate Lane Innes’) thing. It’s not my thing.”

A hot shower was going to feel good for Unity’s players Saturday afternoon, considering they’d just finished playing in low-40-degree temperatures and a stiff wind.

Especially good considering the Rockets won in those conditions.

Routh rushed for a touchdown and set a single-season program record for pass receptions with his 63rd, helping fourth-seeded Unity blow past 13th-seeded Clinton 42-14 in a Class 4A first-round playoff game.

“It’s unbelievable,” Routh said. “We ended the season last year 4-5, and we didn’t want that to happen again. So we made that a goal of ours not to let that happen.”

The Rockets instead improved to 9-1 ahead of a second-round date this upcoming Saturday with No. 12 Bishop McNamara (7-3) in Kankakee.

They did so by turning to quarterback Nate Reinhart and his arm for the early stages versus the Maroons (6-4), something Clinton coach Chris Ridgeway found surprising.

“Not at all. I did not (expect that),” Ridgeway said. “We loaded the box, like a lot of teams have done to them, I’m sure. ... I thought we were going to be sound in our coverage.”

Instead, Reinhart completed his first seven tosses, with six of them going for double-digit yardage.

That included a 10-yard strike to Nate Drennan that gave Unity a 7-0 lead on its first drive, with 5 minutes, 30 seconds left in the opening period.

“A lot of teams know that we like to run the ball,” said Reinhart, who finished with 197 passing yards and a pair of touchdown heaves to Drennan. “We have to go to different options sometimes, and hopefully when we get them used to passing ... we can hit them in the throat in the second half and get a bunch of running yards.”

The Rockets accomplished that before the break, compiling scoring dashes from Routh (55-yard reverse), Hank Cain (15 yards) and former Maroon Micah Downs (6 yards).

“If you’re going to play as man zero and just man us up, we feel like we can have a good combination of whatever we need to do,” said Unity coach Scott Hamilton, who improved his playoff record to 49-24 on the Rockets’ sideline. “(We) just felt like we could get some 1-on-1 battles.”

Clinton’s offense stagnated off the bat when rushing threat Tyrese Petty departed with a hand injury after just one series.

That left quarterback Garrett Wayne to do much of the heavy lifting.

He hit Ty Berter and Braden Cross on touchdown throws of 78 and 8 yards, but the Maroons also punted five times and lost a fumble that Rockets linebacker Cooper Reed returned for more points.

“We wanted to take a different approach (Saturday) and focus more on our screen game,” Ridgeway said. “A lot of those screens were designed around Tyrese, so we lost about half of those when he went down. Losing Tyrese was a big deal.”

On the flip side, securing a postseason victory was important to Unity following last year’s lack of playoff qualification — a first since 1993.

The Rockets made that old news with this result.

“It’s special,” Reinhart said. “It’s nice that we’re back on track and ... doing what we’re used to doing in November.”

The next attempt to continue that trend comes with a somewhat familiar opponent, as Bishop McNamara blasted Unity 50-7 in the 2015 Class 3A state title game.

Presently, the Irish are coming off an upset of fifth-seeded Paris in the first round.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re going to go this time of year,” Hamilton said. “If you can get one more week in, you’re happy to do so.”

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

Prep Sports Coordinator

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