4th-quarter comeback propels Unity to Class 3A football championship game

The last time the Rockets played a semifinal football game at home there was three inches of slush on the grassy turf of Hicks Field. Brutally cold with a sustained 15 mile an hour crosswind gusting to 30 at times, last Saturday's weather conditions were in stark contrast to that of the Blizzard Bowl of 2015.

Under a cloudless blue sky and gentle rays of sunlight heating the barely two-year-old artificial turf, the outcome, played by seniors who were still in junior high during the Blizzard Bowl, was identical. Three quarters of solid defensive play yielded yet another shot at a football state title, the sixth since 1994 when head coach Scott Hamilton took the reigns, after defeating visiting Mt. Carmel, 28-21.

Head coach Scott Hamilton is congratulated by fans after Unity's 28-21 win over Mt. Carmel. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks
"What a crazy game," Hamilton said while Unity players and fans celebrated the team's fourth 2021 playoff victory. The number one seed in the southern playoff bracket, the Rockets played all four postseason games at Hicks Field. "We'll enjoy this one and wake up tomorrow morning and give her hell."

The Rockets jumped out in front on their first possession on an 87-yard drive capped off with quarterback Blake Kimball sprinting three yards toward the southeast court of the end zone, and to the dismay of dozens of Golden Aces fans along the barrier behind the end zone, diving just inside the orange pylon for the first TD of the game.

PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks
With a little help from teammate Camden Mette, Unity's Boden Franklin strips the ball from Mt. Carmel's Blayne Sisson during first quarter action. The Rockets recovered the fumble to set up their next scoring drive. See more game photos from iphotonews.com.

Three minutes later, thanks to a fumble forced by junior Boden Franklin, Kimball was back in the end zone after a two-yard run to put his team up 13-0. With another easy PAT and looking at 14-point first-quarter deficit, Mt. Carmel was shell-shocked. Or, so it seemed.

Shaking it off, the Golden Aces started pulling them out of their sleeve. The first, with less than a minute on the scoreboard, Zeke Hadra scored on an 11-yard run. Then, a second barely two minutes into the second quarter to tie the ballgame up at 14-all courtesy of Mt. Carmel quarterback Blayne Sisson's 70-yard gallop through the Rocket defense.

Mt. Carmel wasn't finished. Hadra threw down another ace in the form of a 10-yards touchdown sending both teams into the locker room with MTC looking golden at 21-14.

"Everything looked so bad the whole second quarter, the whole third quarter, and we couldn't do anything," Hamilton said.

Though it has been a rare occurrence for the Rockets to be behind on the scoreboard, teams don't win 17-straight football games by giving up.

"For whatever reason, whether it was the Monticello game, or if you look back to some of the other games last year, they just hung in there," Hamilton said. He also highlighted his team's struggle against Paxton-Buckley-Loda, whose football program loudly announced their entrance into the mighty Illini Prairie Conference this year. He was proud of how they responded with their 'it ain't over until its over' attitude. "They just don't ever give up on each other."

In the first series of the fourth quarter, Rockets' Will Cowan snags a interception in the Unity end zone. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, Kimball and Matt Brown, who broke out for a 56-yard run on the drive, move the ball down the field. Pushed out of bounds at the 15-yard line, the Rockets had to wait until Kimball barreled into the east end zone for a third time to tie up the score.

"These guys just don't quit," Hamilton said, holding back tears of joy. "Their character is unbelievable."

Re-energized the Unity defense squad created another scoring opportunity with another interception. Camden Mette comes up big with 6:40 left in the fourth quarter. Not long after that, Brown finds his way into the end zone and the Rockets get the PAT to go up 28-21. The Rockets are just 5 minutes, ten seconds away from going to state.

"As he does all the time, Coach (Tony) Reetz got it figured out upfront," Hamilton said. A couple of defensive stops, a little game-clock finesse, and Unity would be preparing to play their 14th game this season. "Coach (Dave) Fink and our defensive guys took care of it on that end, and it's off to DeKalb we go."

Refusing to give up ground, the Unity defense stood tall stalling Mt. Carmel's desperate efforts to get a first down. The Rockets take control of the ball on their own 40 and meticulously wind down the clock down for the win.

Next up, the final test. Unity, who will play its first postseason road game at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University, will square off against Byron.

The Tigers, who will make their third consecutive state final appearance, lost both previous contests by four points. In 2018, Monticello prevailed at Memorial Stadium, 24-20, and Williamsville held on to beat Byron 46-42 in DeKalb for the 2019 title.

Game time is at 4pm.