LIMA — The trophy presentation at the end of Anna’s victory over Archbold was about the only unique occurrence on Friday.
The rest of the game looked like most of the rest of the Rockets’ wins this season.
Anna won the first regional championship in program history and picked up its 10th running clock victory of the season by beating the Blue Streaks 42-7 in the Division VI, Region 23 final at Lima Spartan Stadium.
It was a historic victory for the program, which had struggled in the playoffs before this season. The Rockets (12-1) had a 2-11 playoff record before their current three-game postseason winning streak.
“It’s great,” Anna senior running back Riley Huelskamp. “… We wouldn’t be able to do it without any one of us. I love all these guys, and let’s just keep it going. Hopefully it doesn’t stop here. We’ve got to keep working on things.”
The squad will try for its first state final berth next week. Anna will face Mechanicsburg on Friday in a Div. VI state semifinal at Wapakoneta’s Harmon Field, where the squad beat Fairview in a regional semifinal last Friday.
It’s a familiar opponent for Anna. The squads have faced off in scrimmages the last several seasons, and Marino, an Urbana native, is close to Mechanicsburg coach Kurt Forrest. Marino coached at his alma mater as an assistant and head coach, and the two Champaign County coaches crossed paths frequently.
“They’re a great team,” Huelskamp said. “We’ve got to come ready to play next week.”
The Rockets’ rushing attack moved as well as it has all season as the squad surpassed 40 points for the 11th time. The squad’s big-play offense took advantage of short fields and racked up 294 total yards on 34 plays.
Huelskamp rushed for 156 yards and three TDs while senior quarterback Bart Bixler rushed for 58 yards and one TD and threw for 45 yards and one TD. The pair benefited from solid blocking by the squad’s linemen and receivers — and when the blocks weren’t there, they constantly evaded and shook off defenders in the secondary.
“We’ve got a really explosive back, and the line blocked well, especially in the first half,” Marino said. “Scoring pretty quick helps.”
The Blue Streaks moved the ball through the air some but struggled with the Rockets’ pass rush and coverage by defensive backs. Anna had one interception and numerous deflections.
Senior Wil Luthman, who was named the Southwest district defensive player of the year earlier this week, also helped the defensive effort with long kickoffs that consistently pinned Archbold deep in its own territory. Luthman averaged 49.3 yards per kickoff on Friday.
“That’s been huge,” Marino said. “We talk about trying to gain 100 yards on hidden yardage in the kicking game, and in the playoffs, he’s kicked the best he’s kicked all year. It’s been really nice. Your defense can make a mistake and not give up a touchdown, but if that drive was starting on the 45 instead, that may have been a touchdown.”
Anna built a 28-0 lead in the first half after gaining 171 yards on the ground on 11 plays.
The Rockets drove 67 yards in three plays in the first drive of the second half and scored on a 36-yard touchdown pass from Bixler to Nolan Emerson, who caught the tipped pass in the end zone with 10:10 left to boost the lead to 35-0 and start a running clock.
The continuous clock didn’t last long as Archbold scored on its next drive after DJ Newman threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Cruz with 4:13 left to close the gap under 30 points. The Rockets boosted it back above the mark when Huelskamp scored on a 3-yard run early in the fourth to increase the lead to 42-7.
Archbold turned the ball over on downs on the first drive of the game and Anna quickly scored. Bixler ran for 36 yards on Anna’s first play, and after five straight runs by Huelskamp, Bixler ran up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown with 5:29 left in the first quarter to give the Rockets a 7-0 lead.
The Blue Streaks went three-and-out and punted to their own 43, and Huelskamp scored two plays later. Huelskamp took a handoff, ran right and followed blockers up the home sideline and into the end zone on a 41-yard run to increase the lead to 14-0 with 3:00 left.
Another long kickoff by Luthman pinned Archbold deep in its own territory, and after picking up one first down, the team turned the ball over on downs at midfield. Huelskamp ran for 42 yards on the first play of the next drive, then ran 8 yards for a touchdown with 11:01 left to increase the gap to 21 points.
Archbold picked up several first downs on its next drive but turned the ball over on a fumble on an incomplete lateral pass that was not pursued by the receiver. Anna senior defensive back Brandon Shannon picked up the loose ball and ran 62 yards along the home sideline to score a TD with 6:19 left in the second and boost the advantage to 28-0.
“That scoop and score kind of broke them a little bit,” Marino said. “We always teach the kids that if you’re out in the clear, go ahead and pick the ball up. He did a really good job of scooping that. That’s a drill we do all year, and I think that’s the first one we’ve gotten on that.”
Archbold finished with 315 total yards of offense, 167 of which came in the first half.
“We bent a lot in that first half but we didn’t break,” Marino said. “They got down on the field on us and we don’t like to do that, but the kids made some plays (to prevent them from scoring). We had some interference calls that advanced some drives, so we’ve got to be sharper about those things.”
The Blue Streaks (11-2) had the ball for the rest of the half. They moved into the red zone but failed to score, with two passes in the end zone falling incomplete.