Daniels | Unity ready for earthquake | Sports

  Daniels |  Unity ready for earthquake |  Sports

“Generally, it’s about two hours of sleep,” Unity coach Scott Hamilton said with a smile, “and then try to figure it out on Saturday.”

Unity (12-0) and its staunch defense will get the opportunity to host another playoff game when the Rockets welcome in Mt. Carmel (12-0) for a 2 p.m. kickoff this Saturday in a Class 3A state semifinal game. Fair warning: Get there early.

Unity football fans from Tolono, Philo, Sidney, Pesotum and Sadorus — the five Champaign County towns that feed students into Unity — will have a reason to celebrate well into Saturday night if the Rockets can clinch their first trip to the state title game since 2015 and sixth overall in program history. Much like Hamilton and his program will, too. For a bit.

“It’s great for the community having our fans behind us,” Unity senior quarterback Blake Kimball said. “We know this place like the back of our hand.”

Story Highlights

  • Go home, pick up their wives and head to Old Orchard in Savoy for dinner. Then, because their high school football coaches after all, come home, log in to the NFHS Network and watch a high school football playoff game.

  • So far, so good.

“If we’re fortunate enough to win on Saturday, I’m sure we’ll all go out and enjoy it Saturday night,” he said, “be up early Sunday grinding away.”

Hosting a state semifinal game is an experience unlike any other. Different than a state championship game, too, just because of the buildup all week around the community and school hosting said game instead of it taking place at a neutral site.

Unity is 5-5 all-time in state semifinal games, all of which have transpired with Hamilton roaming the sidelines. Wins have happened in 2015 against St. Joseph-Ogden, 2012 against Greenville, 2009 against Greenville, 2005 against Plano and 2000 against Central A&M. Season-ending defeats in such games for the Rockets happened in 2011 against Aurora Christian, 2010 against Stillman Valley, 2004 against Addison Driscoll, 2003 against Stillman Valley and 1999 against Meridian.

“I told the kids, and I’m sure it’s because we’ve never won the state championship game, but the week of the state championship game is so hectic,” Hamilton said. “It’s Thanksgiving week, and you’re doing all these things. I just think there’s something about semifinal Saturday and semifinal week. There’s not many schools left. A little bit more exposure. It’s a pretty special week.” Unity hasn’t played on the road since a 33-27 overtime win at Monticello on Oct. 22, with the rare feat of four straight home playoff games on the turf surface at Hicks Field actually happening. The Rockets received the No. 1 seed in the southern half of the 3A bracket, meaning a scenario like this was possible when the playoff pairings were revealed on Oct. 23. But not likely.

How rare is this? Well, it’s never happened in Hamilton’s 28-year Hall of Fame coaching career with the Rockets. And Unity is the only team still playing in the semifinals, spread across the eight-class system, to not have played a road playoff game this season. The way the IHSA decides who hosts football playoff games is based on a team’s seed and the number of times a team has hosted a playoff game. It just so happened after Unity easily defeated No. 16 Newton 46-6 on Oct. 30 in the first round that the Rockets’ next three opponents — eighth-seeded Paxton-Buckley-Loda, fourth-seeded Williamsville and now second-seeded Mt. Carmel — all had hosted the same number of playoff games leading up to their game with Unity. Hence, why parking spots around Hicks Field are hard to come by.

The emotions will be plentiful, win or lose, for Unity on Saturday. Sealing a spot in the 3A state title game — set to kick off at 4 p.m. on Nov. 26 at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb — will bring about a different week than the Rockets have experienced this month and the first bus trip of their playoff run. Hamilton doesn’t mind.

“Wanting to be that kid out on the field, and now that it’s our turn, it’s really special,” Unity senior wide receiver Dillon Rutledge said. “We’re really trying to take it all in.” Hamilton’s players have taken note of the support they’ve received. Especially since most of them have watched Unity games growing up.