CANTON — Anna seniors Riley Huelskamp and Bart Bixler put up big rushing yardage totals this year to help aid in the team’s Division VI state championship run, which finished on Friday when the squad beat New Middletown Springfield 48-14 to earn its first state title in program history.
But the duo led a high-powered offense last year, too. The squad averaged 35.5 points per game during last season’s 8-3 campaign.
Huelskamp and Bixler proved nearly unstoppable this year behind an improved offensive line. But the big change for Anna was on defense.
The Rockets gave up an average of 335 yards and 26.11 points per game last season and often had to struggle to win high-scoring games. Those defensive problems showed up again in Week 11, when the squad gave up a last-second touchdown to Elyria Catholic in an opening-round Div. V game and lost 42-35.
This season, Anna lowered its defensive averages to 241.4 yards and 12.7 points per game. They didn’t allow more than 14 points in their last three playoff games.
Huelskamp has closely seen the changes. He’s one of several two-way starters and plays at defensive back.
“I was not very good on defense last year, and I kind of took that to heart,” Huelskamp said. “I want to be better on defense. As a team, we’ve held our standards higher. Coach did a good job of having our team goals to meet every week.”
Anna coach Nick Marino said a schematic change from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme helped with the improvement. He also said the team was more aggressive blitzing, which worked well.
Marino credited former coach Bryan Rioch, who started the program at Anna over 20 years ago, for helping with the success. Rioch, who resigned in 2015 and was succeeded by Marino, rejoined the staff last year as defensive coordinator.
Springfield averaged 351 yards and nearly 41 points per game entering Friday’s final but had a lot of struggles against the Rockets. They managed 234 yards and committed four turnovers.
“We knew they were going to stack the box against us and they ended up blitzing us,” Springfield coach Sean Guerriero said. “I said all week they were going to live and die by it. The did end up making us one dimensional.”
The squad couldn’t run hardly at all, thanks to a big effort by the defensive line, which was led by seniors Wil Luthman and Malachi Minnich. Minnich returned to the field this year for Anna after not playing last year.
Springfield gained 21 rushing yards on 26 carries.
“Those two guys were a part of that,” Marino said of Minnich and Luthman. “They had been pretty dominant in the running game but we made them one dimensional. Coach Rioch called a great game defensively, and I thought we got after them from the start. That was a heck of an effort. We gave up a couple of passes here or there, but they played a heck of a game.
“… We brought the same stunts we’d been running most of the year, and they worked well. We wanted to make them have to throw the football, because their quarterback (Beau Brungard) had run all over guys.”
Turnovers were a big part of Anna’s defensive success this year. The team finished with a turnover margin of plus 25.
“We talk a lot about trying to create mayhem,” Marino said. “We talk about that all the time. We had a lot of turnovers but we also have gotten into the backfield fast and gotten a lot of tackles for loss. A lot of that takes place by putting pressure on the quarterback. Guys running to the football and getting after it helps.”
Brungard, who completed 17-of-35 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, accounted for three of Springfield’s turnovers. He threw two interceptions in the second half (both of which were by Huelskamp) and fumbled in the first half. The squad also fumbled a punt return in the first half.
Three of Springfield’s turnovers led to touchdowns by Anna.
Huelskamp and Isaac Egbert, who was injured in the team’s semifinal win against Mechanicsburg last week, each had seven tackles. Luthman also had seven tackles and led the squad with two sacks and one forced fumble. Kamren Steward had six tackles and one fumble recovery. Hunter Schmidt recovered the fumbled punt.
Anna had finished 5-5 or 4-6 in the three years before Marino took over as coach in 2015 and then finished 3-7 that year and 5-5 in 2016.
The squad isn’t struggling to get to .500 anymore. The Rockets finished 7-4 in 2017 and earned their first playoff berth since 2010. They’ve now made the playoffs three consecutive years and become the eighth Midwest Athletic Conference member to win a football state championship.
Marino said the credit for the defensive and overall improvement in recent years boils down to one thing: the players.
“We’ve worked and gotten better each year, and we just had a really good group of players this year,” Marino said. “That’s what made the difference.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.