Loaded senior class fuels Rockets’ football success

Anna High School senior QB Bart Bixler ranks in the top three for rushing and touchdowns in the Midwest Athletic Conference. JASON ALIG / SIDNEY DAILY NEWS
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Anna High School senior QB Bart Bixler ranks in the top three for rushing and touchdowns in the Midwest Athletic Conference. JASON ALIG / SIDNEY DAILY NEWS

It wasn’t a deciding factor, but Nick Marino had the good fortune of landing as head football coach at Anna High School at the same time a difference-making Rockets class was emerging.

That was five years ago and Marino had just left as Urbana’s head coach after a successful two-season showing. That was a tough call for him, because he initially was a standout Hillclimbers player. The chance to take over at Anna for Bryan Rioch, the only Rockets head coach since the program began in 1999 and join the Midwest Athletic Conference was too alluring.

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Plus, there was a buzz-generating eighth-grade class that was loaded with outstanding two- and three-sport athletes. Those 22 remaining players are now program-defining seniors.

“We have a really good senior class,” Marino said. “That’s the biggest plus for us. They’re playing really good football. They’re very coachable. That starts with the leadership in that group. They’ve done the same thing in basketball. It’s a cool group of kids.”

Anna (4-0) likely has its best team since joining the MAC in 2005 for football only. The high-scoring Rockets haven’t scored less than 45 points and handed Brookville (49-16) and New Bremen (45-0) their only lopsided setbacks. The season started with a detonation of visiting Fenwick (48-14) of the Greater Catholic League Co-Ed. Last week St. Henry became a Rockets believer (48-7).

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That leads up to a midseason Week 5 MAC showdown against visiting Marion Local (3-1), the undisputed MAC heavyweight. This outcome could have a grand effect on the MAC championship, although Coldwater (4-0) will eventually have a say in that. What is guaranteed is a standing-room only crowd at Booster Field in Shelby County.

Anna High School senior running back Riley Huelskamp ranks in the top three for rushing and touchdowns in the Midwest Athletic Conference. JASON ALIG / SIDNEY DAILY NEWS
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Anna High School senior running back Riley Huelskamp ranks in the top three for rushing and touchdowns in the Midwest Athletic Conference. JASON ALIG / SIDNEY DAILY NEWS

“It’s a big game,” Marino said. “It’s a lot more fun when you play a game that you know is going to be a tougher game. It’s definitely a game that these two teams have looked forward to playing for a while.”

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Marion Local was uncharacteristically drubbed 31-7 at unbeaten Columbus Watterson (Division III, Region 11) in Week 2. That was a major step up in non-conference play for the Flyers (D-VII, Region 28). It also was only the third regular-season loss for Marion Local since Week 3 of the 2016 season (twice to Coldwater).

Marion Local dropped from D-VI last season and has played in eight consecutive state championships, winning six and 10 overall. That’s how the Flyers have separated themselves from other MAC programs.

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Anna has qualified for the D-V playoffs each of the last two seasons, but dropped first-round games each time. The Rockets have fielded playoff teams 11 times in their brief program history, but none from 2011-16. That led to Rioch stepping down but remaining as the Rockets’ defensive coordinator.

Anna (4-0) defeated New Bremen in Week 3. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
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Anna (4-0) defeated New Bremen in Week 3. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Anna senior running back Riley Huelskamp has played varsity since his freshman year and ranks among the MAC leaders in rushing (554 yards) and touchdowns (11). Senior quarterback Bart Bixler (470 yards rushing, 11 TDs) is the other half of the productive ground game. Both are returning starters for basketball coach Nathan Barhorst on a team that played in a D-III regional championship last season.

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Anna’s shutdown defense is led by senior linemen Malachi Minnich (30 tackles, nine for loss) and Will Luthman (22 tackles, seven for loss and an interception) and junior linebacker Isaac Egbert (team-high 34 tackles).

Anna is a charter member of the Shelby County Athletic League in all other boys and girls sports.

Anna is lumped with Coldwater and Minster in D-VI, Region 23. Coldwater (4-0) is at Anna in Week 8. Minster and Anna will not play.

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“Every year our league is very well coached and the schools always have a high participation number of kids,” Marino said. “It’s a tough league to win in. Every game, you’ve got to be on top of your game.”

Anna (4-0) defeated New Bremen in Week 3. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
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Anna (4-0) defeated New Bremen in Week 3. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

• Northmont (2-2) is at Trotwood-Madison (3-1) on Friday. Although located just five miles apart, the Greater Western Ohio Conference teams haven’t played since 2007.

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• Bellbrook (3-1) hosted Franklin (3-1) in a Southwestern Buckeye League matchup on Thursday night and Thurgood Marshall played Dunbar at Welcome Stadium.

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