Sports Editor MATT DANIELS checks in with three area teams before the Friday night lights turn on:
1 TOLONO — Even before Unity football conducted its first official practice back in mid-August, Scott Hamilton wanted two characteristics to stand out among his current Rockets’ team.“I hope, and we’ll find out here sooner rather than later, that it’s leadership and playmakers,” the 26th-year Unity coach said. “We want guys that want to be put in those positions. Then, it’s our job to identify those guys and get them the ball to make plays.”
So far, so good. The Rockets (5-1, 5-1 Illini Prairie) carry a five-game win streak into Friday night’s conference game at St. Thomas More (1-5, 1-5). Beat the Sabers — Unity is 6-0 all-time against STM — and the Rockets are back in the postseason for the 25th time in the last 26 seasons. Unity is one of seven area teams entering this Friday that’s one win away from securing a playoff berth.
The Rockets’s defense gets much praise — and rightly so. But the offense, led by senior quarterback Nate Reinhart (65 of 97 for 889 passing yards, 13 touchdowns; 272 rushing yards, 5 TDs), junior running back Hank Cain (956 rushing yards, 4 TDs) and senior receiver Jared Routh (420 receiving yards, 4 TDs), among others, is another key factor.
“When you don’t have game-breaking speed, you have to be a little more perfect,” Hamilton said. “But I like where we’re going offensively, and I like the way our kids are playing on that side of the ball.”
2 DANVILLE — The Big 12 Conference race isn’t decided yet.And Danville could have a significant say in how the league title is determined when the Vikings (4-2, 3-2 Big 12) host league leader Normal Community (5-1, 5-0) at 7 p.m. Friday at Whitesell Field.
“It gives us a nice test to see where we’re at really,” Danville coach Marcus Forrest said. “Are we taking that next step to become one of the top-tier teams in the conference, or are we still in the middle? We just want to give ourselves a chance to grow.”
With junior running back Devin Miles (1,066 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns), there’s always a chance. He’s contributing on both sides of the ball now, too, after injuries opened up a spot for him to see time at linebacker.
“It’s like here you have a Luke Skywalker, and I’m trying to guide him in how to use the Force,” Forrest said. “When he runs the ball, there’s not one kid that’s gotten a clean hit on him. He’s able to move in tight spaces where he just makes it tough.”
Like Danville is now. The Vikings are on a three-game win streak, resurrecting their playoff chances and improving their mental fortitude in the process.
“That’s what’s great about Big 12 football,” Forrest siad. “You’re going to have teams that are going to put you in tough situations. If you have a miscue or something bad happen, you have to persevere through it.”
3 TUSCOLA — Injuries to key players altered Tuscola’s 2018 season. And it’s having similar effects in 2019.Tuscola coach Andy Romine has lost three senior contributors in receiver/defensive back Ben Dixon (hamstring), offensive lineman Max Wyninger (knee) and running back Ashton Jones (broken arm) to season-ending injuries in the last four games for the Warriors, who play at Warrensburg-Latham at 7 p.m. Friday in Central Illinois Conference action.
“For as frustrating as it is, it still does speak to the depth we’ve developed here,” Romine said. “I don’t think there’s really enough time to reflect on it. You’ve got to plug and play.”
On a two-game win streak, Tuscola (4-2, 2-2 CIC) faces the first of three 3-3 teams this week in Warrensburg-Latham. The Warriors host Shelbyville in Week 8 and play at Meridian in Week 9.
“We’ll get the best shots from all these teams,” Romine said, “because they can’t really afford to get beat by us if they want to make the playoffs.”
A seventh straight postseason berth isn’t locked up for the Warriors, either, who need two wins to clinch a playoff spot.
“We try not to dwell on the injuries,” Romine said. “At some point, everyone in our huddle is going to play a big role. We’re going to have a good football team come Week 9 and then as many weeks as we can play in the playoffs.”