CANTON — There’s no doubt left now: Anna is the best Division VI team in Ohio by a long shot this season.
The Rockets smacked New Middletown Springfield 48-14 in the Div. VI state final on Friday morning at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton to earn the program’s first state championship and complete a mission the team’s 22 seniors started last summer.
“Sometimes we’ve looked back on our past and things that we’d done wrong in previous seasons, and I think at the start of this season, the coaches and players wanted to set the precedent, ‘leave no doubt,’” Anna senior quarterback Bart Bixler said. “That’s our motto this year. We wanted to leave no doubt, and throughout the playoffs and the regular season, I think we did just that.”
There’s no doubt to how much better Anna was than the rest of Ohio’s D-VI teams. The Rockets won their last four playoff games with running-clock margins of 30 points or more, and their first postseason victory was a 26-point win on the road at Midwest Athletic Conference rival Minster.
“It’s everything we’ve dreamt of since we’ve been together since seventh, eighth grade,” Anna senior defensive lineman Malachi Minnich said. “It’s an amazing feeling. All the fans and the crowd cheering you on for your first chance to win a state final, and we brought it home.”
Anna (14-1) overwhelmed opponents in every imaginable way, including previously undefeated Springfield (14-1) on Friday.
The Rockets’ offensive line largely dominated, created big gaps and provided excellent blocking. The team’s stellar backfield combo of D-VI all-Ohio selections in Bixler and senior running back Riley Huelskamp proved as difficult to catch and tackle as ever. And the Rockets’ defense rushed Springfield QB Beau Brungard, bottled up the team’s receivers and stuffed almost every rushing attempt.
Anna won with running-clock margins in 12 of its 14 wins and scored 36 or more points in all but a midseason loss against MAC rival Marion Local, which will play in the D-VII state final on Saturday morning.
The Rockets, which played their first full varsity season in 2000 and joined the MAC six years later, have finally joined up with most of the rest of the conference’s teams by having won a state title. Eight of the conference’s 10 football members have won state titles; only New Bremen and Parkway haven’t.
The state title is the first for any Shelby County program. It’s the 34th state football championship won by a MAC school and 135th overall state championship.
“We did a great job this year of not only playing well in the MAC but staying healthy,” Anna coach Nick Marino said. “We stayed as healthy as you can at this time of the year. But it obviously prepares you. Our league was tough and our region was tough. We had a tough road to the state finals, and it’s a credit to these players.”
The championship came after decades of playoff struggles for the program. Anna had a 2-11 postseason record heading into this season. The squad lost Div. V playoff openers the previous two years after allowing last-second touchdowns.
“Before the season, all the seniors kind of got together and talked that we wanted to do what no one else had done by going 15 weeks and winning a state title,” Huelskamp said. “We did that today. …It feels great. Words can’t describe it.”
Anna finished with 373 yards of offense. The Tigers managed 234 yards and committed four turnovers: two fumbles in the first half and two interceptions in the second half. They also had eight penalties, five of which were offensive procedure penalties.
“Anna’s a great football team, and when it comes down to it, I said all week that it was going to come down to the team that makes the most mistakes, not the team that makes the most plays,” Springfield coach Sean Guerriero said.
Bixler and Huelskamp again led the attack. Bixler ran for a game-high 168 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries while Huelskamp ran for 146 yards and three TDs on 17 carries. Bixler also completed 3-of-5 passes for 51 yards with one touchdown.
“Both backs are good,” Guerriero said. “It all starts with their O- and D-line, and their O-line was good. You could see that on film. We knew we were going to have a challenge trying to tackle them.”
The duo finishes the season with a combined 4,178 rushing yards and 71 rushing touchdowns.
“Me and Riley make a lot of plays, but we couldn’t do the things we do without our line,” Bixler said. “We’ve had great perimeter blocking too, and the blocking takes us where we want to go, game-in and game-out.”
Anna capitalized on two turnovers Springfield to take 28-14 halftime lead. The Tigers scored two touchdowns in the final minutes of the second quarter to stay in it and grab momentum heading into halftime. They didn’t keep it for long.
On the second play of the third quarter, Huelskamp intercepted a Brungard pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown to boost the lead to 34-14 after a missed extra point.
“That flipped the momentum completely back,” Marino said. “That was a big play. I think (junior linebacker) Ben Kovacs got under that route a little bit, and the quarterback double-pumped it, and Riley took it.”
Springfield turned the ball over on downs on its next drive, and Anna went on a seven-play, 61-yard drive that Huelskamp capped off with a 20-yard touchdown run to increase the lead to 41-14 with 3:09 left in the third.
Bixler broke through on a 76-yard run early in the fourth quarter but was run out of bounds just before reaching the end zone. He ran it in from 1 yard out on the next play with 7:37 left to finish the game’s scoring and start a running clock.
The teams traded punts early until Springfield fumbled a punt return, which Anna recovered on the Tigers’ 13-yard line. The squad scored soon after on a 2-yard touchdown run by Riley Huelskamp to take a 7-0 lead with 4:37 left in the first quarter.
The Rockets scored on their next drive when Bart Bixler ran in from 4 yards out with 11:12 left in the second quarter.
Springfield fumbled on its next drive after a tackle by senior defensive lineman Wil Luthman, and senior linebacker Kamren Steward recovered. The Rockets scored on the first play of the resulting drive on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Bixler to Nolan Emerson.
Brungard threw a 7-yard TD pass to Evan Ohlin later in the second to narrow the gap to 21-7, but Huelskamp broke free for a 72-yard TD run with 3:03 left to increase the lead back to 21 points.
Brungard threw a 16-yard TD pass to David Duvall shortly before halftime to cut the deficit to 14.
None of the Anna’s 22 seniors have any college scholarship offers, but Marino said they should and is hopeful some will come in this winter.
“I think Riley is a scholarship player,” Marino said. “The fact that no one has found them, they better start looking.”
The Rockets will enjoy the victory for a while before preseason workouts begin in a month. Then, they’ll begin to prepare for trying to win their third consecutive MAC title and making another long postseason run without 22 seniors, including Bixler and Huelskamp.
“These kids have had an unbelievable season,” Marino said. “These seniors have done a great job for four years. They get to have a little bit of fun with it today because of that.”
They’ll have fun without having any doubts.