WAPAKONETA — Mechanicsburg played Anna close in the first half on Friday but had the same struggle the rest of the Rockets’ playoff opponents have had: containing Riley Huelskamp and Bart Bixler for a full game.
Anna’s star senior running back and quarterback led several big drives in the second half to help the squad pull away to a 36-6 victory in a Division VI state semifinal at Wapakoneta’s Harmon Field to advance to the first state final in program history.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this,” Bixler said. “We always talk about being one team united together. This is the best brotherhood I could share with anybody else.
“Our coaches always talk about comparing everybody and everything we do to our Week 15 opponent, and now we get to play a Week 15 opponent, and that’s just amazing.”
The Rockets (13-1) advance to face undefeated New Middletown Springfield, which beat Howard East Knox 42-14 in a semifinal on Friday. The D-VI state championship game will kick off at 10 a.m. on Friday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
Anna becomes the first Shelby County football program to qualify for a state championship game. Sidney, Lehman Catholic and Fort Loramie have all qualified for state semifinals but haven’t advanced further.
“That’s a compliment to all of our seniors and all of our young guys,” Huelskamp said. “We’re a team. We’re brothers. We fight for each other.”
Based on history, few would have picked the Rockets to be the first Shelby County team to reach Canton. Anna, which played its first full varsity season in 2000, had struggled in the playoffs before this season and had a 2-11 postseason record, with the wins coming in 2005 and 2009.
Those struggles are common knowledge among the team’s coaches and players, almost all of which were a part of two narrow losses in first-round playoff games the last two years. The team lost 14-10 at Middletown Madison in 2017 and 42-35 at Elyria Catholic last year after giving up touchdowns in the final minute of both D-V playoff openers.
Anna coach Nick Marino set the team motto as “leave no doubt,” this summer as a challenge to overcome postseason struggles. The Rockets haven’t left any doubters in this playoff run; they’ve outscored their four opponents by an average of 45-14.
“We had unfinished business last year that we didn’t take care of, and this year is all about taking care of it,” Bixler said.
Huelskamp and Bixler are the two biggest reasons why the squad will be playing for its first state title. The two were both first team all-Southwest district selections and have accumulated nearly 4,000 rushing yards this year, and Bixler has thrown for 1,533 yards.
“Me and him have been best friends since day one,” Bixler said. “We’re basically a package deal. That’s just how it goes.”
Behind a large offensive line that has improved as the year has went on, the Rockets have proved nearly unstoppable — and were in the second half Friday.
After taking an eight-point lead by halftime, Huelskamp ran for two of his four TDs in the third quarter to increase the lead to 28-6 and then added another TD and two-point conversion run in the fourth to boost the lead to 30 points and start a running clock. He finished with 246 rushing yards on 24 carries.
“Going in the locker room up just eight at halftime, we’re not used to that,” Bixler said. “We’re usually up by a lot already and nearly already have a running clock, but it was good to be in this situation to get us ready for Week 15. We need to be ready for anything.”
Bixler threw a TD in the first half and had several big runs in the game, though a couple of sacks dropped his stats to 34 rushing yards on 16 carries. He completed 8-of-8 passes for 122 yards.
It was the 11th running clock victory of the season for Anna, which has scored 42 or more points in 12 of its 14 games.
“This was still a lot closer than it sounds,” Anna coach Nick Marino said. “That was a hard-fought win, and our kids kept grinding. Mechanicsburg is a good team.”
The Rockets had 424 yards of offense and held Mechanicsburg to 206, most of which came in the first half. Marino credited the squad for improved play in the second half, specifically on defense.
“Those guys made the adjustments,” Marino said. “We talked to them about it, and they came out and did what we needed to do. It all started clicking together. The kids fought together. It was a great team win.”
Anna led 14-6 at halftime and scored on the first drive of the second half.
On a third-and-eight, Bixler ran right toward the home sideline and looked to be running out of room but pitched behind him to Huelskamp, who ran 78 yards up the sideline for a touchdown with 10:27 left to increase the lead to 21-6.
The Indians went three-and-out on their next drive. Anna quickly drove into Mechanicsburg territory, but Bixler was tackled hard after gaining a first down and was helped off the field after a lengthy examination by trainers.
The Rockets didn’t slow in his absence. Huelskamp, who has rushed for 41 touchdowns this year, took over at QB for a few plays and picked up two first downs, then backup QB Brandon Axe entered and threw a 24-yard pass to Isaac Lininger on a third-and-21 to give the squad the ball at the 2-yard line. Huelskamp ran it in on the next play to push the lead to 22 points with 3:34 left.
“That kind of shocked me a little bit when (Bixler) went down,” Huelskamp said. “… We fought through, and (Axe) came in and delivered a great throw.
Bixler returned at quarterback early in the fourth quarter after passing a concussion examination, and Huelskamp scored on a 35-yard run and then ran for a two-point conversion to increase the lead to 36-6 and start a running clock with the 30-point differential.
“It was great to see (Bixler) back out there and comfortable,” Huelskamp said. “Things work a lot better when he’s out there.”
Mechanicsburg went three-and-out on the first drive of the game and Anna quickly scored. The Rockets started their first drive on their own 7 and moved to their 38 after five runs by Bixler and Huelskamp.
Bixler then threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Nolan Emerson. Emerson caught the about 15-yard throw along the visitor’s sideline, then shook a defender and ran the rest of the way to the end zone to give the squad a 7-0 lead with 7:41 left in the first quarter.
The Indians responded fast. After picking up one first down, Chayse Propst broke through the middle and outran Anna defenders on a 65-yard TD run with 6:53 left. Danny Mascadri’s extra-point attempt hit off the right crossbar and allowed the Rockets to keep the lead at 7-6.
After both teams punted on their next two drives, Anna got going again in the middle of the second quarter and scored on an 8-yard run up the middle by Huelskamp with 5:42 left to take a 14-6 lead.
The teams traded punts, and Mechanicsburg drove into Anna territory in the final minute of the quarter but didn’t score, as two deep passes fell incomplete.
“That’s a whole other game if it’s a tie game,” Marino said. “Getting that stop was huge. All the fighting in the first half was huge.”
The Indians finish 11-3. They’ll lose nine seniors to graduation.
The two teams scrimmaged in August, and Mechanicsburg coach Kurt Forrest said Anna is vastly improved.
“But we’ve improved a lot since then too,” Forrest said. “We just gave up some big plays that we can’t. We gave up a long run on the edge there at the start of the third quarter and you just can’t do that. Their first TD (of the game), we just missed a simple tackle on a hitch. You just can’t do things like that and win a ball game at this level.”
The Rockets will now try to “leave no doubt” when they travel to Canton on Friday.
“I think we have to keep our composure and play just like it’s another game,” Bixler said. “Obviously it’s a state final and everybody’s going to be jacked up, but if we play this game just like we’ve played every other game, we’re going to be just fine.”