STM Unity Football 2814

Unity's Nate Reinhart (7) runs the ball against St. Thomas More during the first half of a high school football game Friday, Oct. 5, 2018 at Unity High School's Hicks Field in Tolono.

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Each day over the 2 1/2 weeks leading up to the 2019 IHSA football season, the News-Gazette will be previewing all 37 teams in its coverage area.

TOLONO — Last October didn’t feel right for Scott Hamilton.

Or his Unity football players.

That’s because the 2018 season was unlike any other season for Hamilton in his lengthy, distinguished tenure at Unity.

Eliminated from playoff contention before the calendar even flipped to October, the Rockets were on the outside looking in when it came to the postseason, missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

“I’ve been itching to get back on the field since the season ended so quickly last year because it did not go how it was supposed to at all,” Unity senior offensive lineman Karson Ewerks said. “We’re here to prove that was just a fluke.”

The Rockets’ streak of 24 consecutive playoff appearances ended last season, with Unity getting eliminated from playoff contention in Week 6 before ultimately finishing with a 4-5 record thanks to three straight wins to close out the regular season.

Monticello and Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin both now hold the active area record for consecutive playoff appearances, with both small-school programs having qualified for the postseason each of the last 10 seasons.

For Hamilton, playoff football was all he had ever known in his time at Unity. Arriving in 1994, Hamilton had compiled a 231-57 record with the Rockets prior to the 2018 season, including five state championship game appearances. An Illinois High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee in 2017, Hamilton didn’t spend last fall bemoaning the fact Unity missed out on the playoffs, though.

“I went and watched different teams practice in the playoffs just to get a feel for how people were doing things,” Hamilton said. “We spent a lot of time trying to look back and try to figure out where we failed last year as coaches and what we didn’t do right.”

The inexperienced roster the Rockets had in 2018, with hardly any returning starters from 2017, saw Unity lose its first four games. Senior quarterback Nate Reinhart, who had an injury-plagued 2018 season, is slated to take control of the Rockets’ spread offense, with junior Hank Cain set to slide in at running back. Most importantly for the Rockets, three starters return on the offensive line in Ewerks, senior Griffin Sullivan and senior Cam Scott, with senior receiver Jordan Clark bringing size and play-making ability out wide.

“Last year, not many of them got a lot of playing time coming into the season with that class above them being such great athletes,” said Reinhart, who rushed for 217 yards and threw for 173 more as a junior. “This year, since we have a lot of returning guys, they’re used to the atmosphere, used to the adrenaline and all of that.”

Clark shares the same sentiment.

“We didn’t have many returning starters, and after Week 1 or Week 2, people just got their heads in the wrong places,” he said. “We needed more of the motivation that we had towards the end of last season.”

Defensively, senior Cade Scott is back at defensive end, while seniors Cooper Reed and Logan Wilson are expected to fortify the linebacking corps. Senior Jared Routh, along with juniors Logan Jones and Lane Innes, are counted on for production in the secondary.

The Rockets will get their first chance to prove last season was a fluke when they host Chillicothe Illinois Valley Central on Aug. 30 at the new-look Hicks Field. Unity’s home venue received a facelift this summer, with turf replacing the grass playing surface and a new scoreboard among the amenities.

Playing a rugged nine-game slate against Illini Prairie Conference foes — five teams made the playoffs last season, including defending Class 3A state champion Monticello — will give the Rockets plenty of tests to see if they’re equipped to make the playoffs again. And possibly start a new run of postseason appearances.

“It stunk to be on the team that ruined the streak,” Reinhart said. “You want to be one to put it back and get it going again. We want to make sure it keeps going in the right direction.”

Hamilton would like nothing more. Even after 25 seasons leading the Rockets, he said he still feels as energized as he did when he started.

“I chased down physicals on Monday like I did in 1994 and dealt with last-second equipment issues,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “It’s just a real exciting time. Whenever I lose this feeling and this desire to get going is probably the day I ought to give it up. There’s times when the season ends and you think, ‘Gosh, how many more times can I do this?’ You’re tired, and then you get to this time of year, you’re excited. As I told our kids, it was too long of an offseason and we’ve got to find a way to fix it.”

When you can see the Rockets

A look at Unity football’s 2019 schedule:

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Aug. 30 vs. Chillicothe Illinois Valley Central 7 p.m.Sept. 6 vs. Pontiac 7 p.m.

Sept. 13 at Prairie Central 7 p.m.

Sept. 20 vs. St. Joseph-Ogden 7 p.m.

Sept. 27 at Olympia 7 p.m.

Oct. 4 vs. Monticello 7 p.m.

Oct. 11 at St. Thomas More 7 p.m.

Oct. 18 vs. Rantoul 7 p.m.

Oct. 25 at Bloomington Central Catholic 7 p.m.

Sports Editor

Matt Daniels is sports editor at The News-Gazette. His email is mdaniels@news-gazette.com.