WAPAKONETA — The first few minutes of a Division VI, Region 23 semifinal at Wapakoneta’s Harmon Field looked much different from most of Anna’s games.
But luckily for the Rockets, the rest of the game looked largely the same as the team’s many other big wins: a whirlwind of Riley Huelskamp and Bart Bixler touchdowns.
After Anna found itself in an early two-touchdown deficit, the squad rallied to reclaim the lead by halftime and then ran away in the second half to a 54-20 victory over Sherwood Fairview on Friday.
Huelskamp, a senior running back, ran for 292 yards on 29 carries and scored six touchdowns, including all four the team’s second-half TDs. Bixler, a senior quarterback, ran for 130 yards on 13 carries and scored the last two touchdowns of the first half to help send the squad into the locker room with a 27-20 lead after it had trailed 14-0 early.
“It started off a little rough,” Huelskamp said. “We faced a little bit of adversity, and I’m glad of how our guys responded when we did. We responded the correct way tonight, and I’m happy to see it.”
The squad’s offensive line led another big rushing attack in the team’s ninth running-clock win of the season. Anna amassed 591 yards of offense, with 470 coming on the ground. The rest came through the air from Bixler, who completed 6-of-7 passes for 121 yards with one TD.
The Rockets, which have scored at least 42 points in all their wins, were bottled up by Fairview on their first drive of the game but scored touchdowns on nine of their next 10 possessions.
“They dominated. They absolutely deserve everything, all my accomplishments and everything like that,” Huelskamp said of the offensive line. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. …As it moved on, (Fairview) lost a very good linebacker with an injury, and it just kept going with our offensive line. They just kept winning the line of scrimmage.”
It’s the first time Anna (11-1) has won two playoff games in the same season. The Rockets, which lost in first-round games the last two years, will now try to capture the program’s first regional championship when they face Archbold in a regional final next Friday at a site to be determined.
“These kids have come a long way,” Anna coach Nick Marino said. “They’ve been in the program four years. Great group of kids. I love these kids. They’re fun to be around. They’re better kids than they are football players.”
Archbold beat Liberty Center 31-30 in a regional semifinal on Friday to advance. The location of the regional final will be released on Sunday by the OHSAA.
Fairview scored the first two touchdowns of the game but Anna got to work on the ground and took a 27-20 lead by halftime, then quickly extended it in the second half thanks in part to several big plays by Huelskamp.
“He’s a tough kid; he’s a really tough kid,” Marino said. “If you keep giving Riley the ball, good things are going to happen. Sometimes we miss a block, and he makes us look right. Kids like that are fun to coach.”
Fairview recovered an onside kick to start the second half but Huelskamp came up with an interception on third down to give Anna the ball. The Rockets moved quickly on the next drive, which Huelskamp capped off with a 1-yard run with 8:09 left in the third quarter to boost the lead to 33-20 after a missed extra point.
“That swung (the momentum) right back,” Marino said. “That (onside kick) tightened us right back up. We were thinking about taking a 14-point lead if we score, and then that happens, and we had to go make some plays. But I thought our team responded really well in that situation. We had great pass rush coming out of the half and got a lot of heat to them and the pass coverage tightened up.”
Anna came up with two consecutive sacks to pin Fairview deep in its own territory and force a punt. The Rockets started their next drive at Fairview’s 47-yard line and quickly scored. After Huelskamp broke free on a run to move it into the end zone, he ran in up the middle untouched from three yards out to increase the lead to 40-20 with 4:22 left.
“We kind of went to more of an inside running scheme (in the second half) because they were loading up the edges,” Marino said. “We run on the edge a lot. We’re pretty quick, so we try to get outside. We decided to go a little more to the middle and run it with our big kids up front, and it worked.”
The Apaches lost yardage on their next drive and punted again, and Anna quickly scored on a 34-yard TD run by Huelskamp with 1:52 left to boost the lead to 27 points.
Huelskamp scored on a 27-yard run with 9:27 left in the fourth quarter to boost the lead to 54-20. With the margin over 30 points, the rest of the game was played with a running clock.
Fairview drove 80 yards in six plays on the first drive of the game and scored on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Cade Polter to Doug Rakes to take a 7-0 lead with 11:09 left in the first quarter.
Bixler fumbled at Anna’s 32 on third down of the team’s first drive and Fairview recovered. The Apaches scored several plays later on a fourth-and-long. Polter launched a pass into the end zone, and it went between two Anna defenders and into the hands of Caleb Frank for a 28-yard touchdown, which increased the lead to 14-0.
“Coach always talks about, ‘How are we going to respond to adversity?’” Huelskamp said. “Good teams respond to adversity well. I’m glad with how we responded after that. We turned it up.”
Anna responded on the second play of its next drive. Huelskamp took a short pass from Bixler and ran up the home sideline 67 yards for a touchdown with 6:03 left. The Rockets missed the extra point and trailed by eight points.
Fairview went three-and-out on its next possession and the Rockets then went on a long drive which Huelskamp capped off with a 14-yard touchdown with 1:03 left to pull within 14-13.
The Apaches punted after getting one first down and Anna quickly scored. Bixler scrambled on a broken pass play, cut right and outraced defenders on a 43-yard run to give the Rockets a 20-13 lead with 8:35 left in the second.
Fairview got going on offense again. After Frank hauled in a 53-yard pass on the first play of the next drive, Riley Lucas scored on a 1-yard run two plays later. The Apaches missed their extra-point attempt, resulting in the score staying tied with 6:42 left.
The Rockets responded with another long drive, which Bixler capped off with a 25-yard touchdown run with 4:51 left to put the squad ahead 27-20.
Fairview, which won the Green Meadows Conference for the first time in 11 years, finishes 10-2 overall. The Apaches had 197 yards of offense, almost all of which came in the first half.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.