Despite losing most of its starters from 2017, Anna was able to reach new heights in 2018 — Midwest Athletic Conference champion heights.
The Rockets won a share of their first MAC title after 14 seasons of playing in the league and finished 8-2 in regular season, which was good enough to earn them their second consecutive playoff berth.
They had to do it all with a mostly new corps of players. Anna returned just five starters on offense and four starters on defense from a 7-4 campaign in 2017.
But the Rockets had two key pieces back — two key pieces that proved nearly unstoppable for most opponents.
Junior running back Riley Huelskamp returned for his second season as a starting running back. He shared carries in 2017 with Aidan Endsley, but with Endsley graduated, he led the team to new offensive heights in 2018.
Junior quarterback Bart Bixler helped aid Anna’s offensive successes. He started at quarterback in three games in 2017 while normal starter Travis Meyer was injured, and he helped launch the Rockets’ rushing attack in the backfield last year with Endsley.
It took a while for Anna’s new pieces to fit in. The squad struggled in scrimmages — including a 19-7 loss to Covington in a scrimmage the week before the season began. Anna suffered a 42-27 loss at Middletown Fenwick in Week 1 and gave up nearly 400 yards of offense but quickly turned things around.
The Rockets bounced back with a 48-27 win over Brookville in Week 2 in the team’s home opener. The Rockets led 27-13 at halftime and returned two turnovers for touchdowns in the first two minutes of the third quarter to extend their lead to four touchdowns. They were two of four turnovers the squad created that night.
“We’re pleased with the win but not pleased with the performance necessarily with some aspects of the game,” Anna coach Nick Marino said. “… We’ve got to consistently tackle better and we’ve got to get to the ball better and everything else you see when you look at a good defense.”
The Rockets got the defensive performance Marino was hoping for in Week 3 when they crushed previously undefeated New Bremen 42-7. The Cardinals had scored 75 points in their first two games but managed 235 yards and eight first downs against Anna. Bixler threw for 61 yards and one touchdown and ran for 133 yards and two TDs.
The Rockets then came up with the first of three season-defining MAC victories in Week 4 in a 28-27 overtime win over St. Henry.
Anna trailed 14-0 at halftime before Bixler scored on an 11-yard run in the third quarter and Huelskamp scored on a 2-yard run to tie it 14-14. Zach Niekamp scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter to put the Redskins ahead, but Huelskamp responded with a 39-yard touchdown run to tie it 21-21 and send it to overtime.
Huelskamp scored on an 8-yard touchdown run in overtime to give Anna a 28-21 lead. The Redskins scored on a 5-yard run by Niekamp, but his two-point conversion run was stopped by a gang of Anna tacklers a few feet from the goal line. Huelskamp ran for 144 yards on 21 carries.
The Rockets couldn’t keep up the momentum in Week 5 and lost at MAC powerhouse Marion Local, but they rebounded at home in Week 6 with a 41-21 win over Versailles.
The squad then won a pair of close MAC games, the first of which was a 39-34 win over Fort Recovery in Week 7. The Indians led 21-6 early, but Huelskamp scored on three short touchdown runs in the second quarter to put the Rockets ahead 26-21 at halftime.
Bixler threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Justin Murray in the third quarter and ran for a 39-yard TD in the fourth. The Indians pulled within six late, but Anna prevented them from rallying.
Anna then came up with a 21-20 road win over MAC power Coldwater in Week 8. The Cavaliers drove down to Anna’s 1-yard line with 21 seconds left but fumbled, and the Rockets recovered to clinch the win. Anna had trailed 20-13 before Bixler threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Lininger with 1:36 in the fourth and Justin Murray ran in for a two-point conversion to put the Rockets ahead by one.
The Rockets crushed Parkway 51-13 in their final home game of the season in Week 9, then beat Delphos St. John’s on a Saturday afternoon on the road in Week 10.
After finishing regular season 8-2, they earned the No. 5 seed in Division V, Region 18 and traveled to Elyria Catholic for a first-round playoff game.
And just like in 2017 when they made a long road trip to Middletown Madison for a playoff game, a last-second touchdown doomed their effort.
Elyria Catholic’s Leighton Banjoff scored a 1-yard touchdown run and then ran for a two-point conversion to lift the team to a 42-35 win. He scored with 19 seconds left, and the squad then sacked Bixler on the final play of the game to end it.
The Rockets led 13-0 early on but gave up three touchdowns before halftime and trailed 20-13. Bixler threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Nolan Emerson to tie it, then Riley Huelskamp ran for a 1-yard touchdown later in the third quarter to put Anna ahead 27-20.
Banjoff scored on a 62-yard run to tie it again before the end of the third. Then early in the fourth, Cameron English threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jaret Frantz to put the Panthers ahead by seven.
Bixler threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Lininger with 45 seconds left, and the Rockets converted a two-point try on a pass to take a 35-34 lead.
Elyria Catholic returned the ensuing kickoff back to Anna’s 40 and moved to the 1-yard line in two plays, which set up Banjoff’s game-winning TD.
Huelskamp finished with 1,357 rushing yards and 23 TDs while Bixler ran for 885 yards and 10 TDs and threw for 991 yards and 12 TDs.
The pair will look to lead Anna again this season. The squad will open the season by hosting Fenwick on Aug. 30.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.