ANNA — After several subpar years, Anna had a breakout season in 2017 in Nick Marino’s third year at the program’s helm.
The Rockets were 3-7 and 5-5 in Marino’s first two years. The squad had high hopes entering 2017 with six all-Midwest Athletic Conference players returning along with a host of other starters.
Though a Week 4 injury to Travis Meyer took the air out of the team in the middle of the season, the Rockets finished regular season 7-3 and earned their first playoff berth since 2010.
Anna had a solid group of returnees from 2016 on its offensive line along with several starters back in skill positions, including Meyer and all-MAC running back Aidan Endsley.
“I think we have a chance of being competitive in the MAC,” Marino said before the season. “Every game is certainly tough, but I do think this is the best prepared team we’ve had in the last three years.”
The Rockets got off to a hot start, as their offense steamrolled over their first three opponents.
Anna beat Arlington 52-0 in Week 1 and led 38-0 at halftime. The Rockets had 486 yards of total offense and held Arlington to 80. Meyer threw for 207 yards, with touchdown passes to Austin Fogt and Caleb Kauffman.
Brookville proved to be a bit more of a challenge in Week 2, but Anna ran away in the second half. Brookville scored early in the third quarter to cut Anna’s lead to 21-6, but Meyer threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Fogt and a 60-yard scoring pass to Kauffman to boost the lead to 34-6 before the end of the third quarter.
Anna went on to beat the Blue Devils 49-12 and amassed 456 yards of offense. Endsley ran for 107 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries, while sophomore running back Riley Huelskamp ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
The Rockets crushed Versailles 52-20 in Week 3 with another big offensive performance. Meyer threw for 247 yards and two touchdowns in the win, while Endsley ran for 104 yards and Huelskamp ran for 102 yards in the win. Endsley and Huelskamp both scored two TDs apiece against the Tigers, which had allowed an average of 114 yards per game in their first two games.
Meyer tore his ACL while running out on the field before a home Week 4 game against New Bremen. While the Rockets went on to win, the difference in offensive production was apparent.
Anna scored to take a 28-7 lead on the first play of the third quarter, but New Bremen’s ground attack largely controlled the rest of the game and closed the final margin down to 28-20.
The Rockets averaged 471 yards and 50 points per game in their first three games but had 292 yards against the Cardinals, 217 of which came on the ground.
Marino was happy Anna was able to force a turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter to prevent New Bremen from tying but was disappointed the team wasn’t emotionally tougher after losing Meyer.
“We did not have a very good night,” Marino said. “We’ve got a lot of things to work on and have to get back after it tomorrow. That wasn’t a fun game, but we’ll take the win.”
Anna grinded out a 21-13 win in Week 5 against Delphos St. John’s. Kauffman scored on 58-yard touchdown run and a 27-yard touchdown — his only two carries of the game — in the second half to help the Rockets win. Anna had 321 yards of offense, 249 of which came on the ground.
The Rockets dropped to 5-1 in Week 6 with a showdown with undefeated Marion Local, which went on to win the Division VI state title. The Flyers methodically accumulated 278 yards of offense and held Anna to 196 in the 32-7 win.
The Rockets bounced back the following week, though, with a 21-19 win over St. Henry — and with Meyer under center at quarterback.
Meyer chose to forgo having surgery on his ACL tear and played the rest of the season with a special brace, starting with the Week 7 win over the Redskins.
Meyer threw for 118 yards and one touchdown to help the Rockets earn the win. His TD throw came late in the third quarter on a 38-yard pass to Fogt and pushed Anna’s lead to 21-13. St. Henry scored early in the fourth but missed a two-point conversion.
Anna then blasted Parkway 42-0 in Week 8. Endsley rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries while Huelskamp ran for 73 yards and two TDs on 11 carries.
Anna fell to 7-2 in Week 9 with a 28-21 loss at Coldwater. Anna had a two-touchdown lead, but the Cavaliers scored three TDs in the third quarter to come back and win. Meyer threw for 217 yards, and Kauffman caught five passes for 115 yards.
The Rockets then lost at home to Minster 20-7 in Week 10 in rainy conditions. The Wildcats ground attack largely controlled the game, and Anna had six turnovers.
The two losses to end regular season didn’t prevent Anna from making the playoffs, though. They finished No. 7 in Division V, Region 20 and traveled to Middletown Madison for a playoff game.
The playoff game against the Mohawks turned into a mud battle, as Madison’s field hadn’t drained much after a week of rain.
Meyer threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Fogt with under three minutes to go to put the Rockets up 10-7, but Madison scored a touchdown with under a minute left to earn a 14-10 win.
Kauffman, Fogt, lineman Abe Wildermuth and defensive back Wyatt Bensman earned all-MAC honors after the season. Bensman was first team all-Southwest district, while Wildermuth was third team.
Huelskamp finished the season with 944 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while Endsley had 853 rushing yards and 8 TDs. Meyer threw for 1,221 yards and 8 TDs, while Kauffman was fourth in the MAC with 554 receiving yards and caught four touchdowns. Fogt was fifth in the MAC with 552 receiving yards and 5 TDs.
Anna will open the 2018 season on Aug. 24 at Middletown Fenwick.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.