The Program: How does Unity football get ready for road games? Let's find out

Sep. 7—TOLONO — Dave Fink knows what he's in for once he gets behind the wheel of an older red Ford pickup truck every Friday when the Unity football team has a road game.

"In the offseason, it's used as a snow plow," Unity's defensive coordinator said with a laugh. "So it doesn't make for real comfortable cruising on the highway."

The Rockets will hit the road for the first time this season on Friday afternoon, making the 120-mile trip to Chillicothe to play host Illinois Valley Central at 7 p.m. Friday.

Coach Scott Hamilton's program has spent the majority of its practice time this week trying to make sure Unity (1-1) avoids a second straight loss after rival St. Joseph-Ogden edged the Rockets 38-35 last Friday night at Hicks Field.

But for Hamilton and his staff, road games mean extra preparation. Just in a different way and in a way that started well before the Unity traveling party of around 90 players, coaches, staff and managers leave Tolono around 2 p.m. on Friday.

"It's down to an art," Hamilton said.

Like Hamilton and assistant coach Mitch Negangard bulk purchasing 40 cases of Gatorade at Sam's Club or Costco a month before the season kicks off.

Like offensive coordinator Tony Reetz making sure a tripod camera used in the press box, a 30-foot tripod camera that goes in the end zone, a TV monitor and six iPads are all packed away neatly in a trunk.

Like secondary coach Patrick Striegel making sure coolers, water tanks, footballs, extra jerseys and other equipment are ready to go.

Like Fink making sure towels, the coaches' headsets, first-aid equipment and extra helmets are stored away in an equipment box.

Or, in the words of Hamilton, extra everything.

"Going into it, you're trying to figure out, OK, is this going to be a game with heat issues and you pack extra coolers or you've got cold issues and you're packing your parkas," Hamilton said. "All the way down to do we have an extra whiteboard in case we don't have access and do we have dry-erase markers. You just want to be as prepared as possible."

For Reetz, making sure all the technology is operating once the Rockets arrive at an opposing venue is one of his first tasks. An assistant in his 20th season at Unity, Reetz laughs when the Monticello graduate and former Illinois State offensive lineman is asked about how he became responsible for all the cameras and iPads the Rockets now have.

"I think a lot of it came from me complaining about not having that end-zone angle because all the film that we would ever watch in college of offensive line play was always from behind, so I'd always complain and say, 'I want that end-zone angle,'" Reetz said with a grin. "He finally broke down and bought them and said, 'OK, they're yours,' so here we are 19 years later, and it's still my project."

But before the Rockets get to Taylor Field in Chillicothe on Friday night, they will stop and eat dinner — a pizza buffet is the plan — at a restaurant in Peoria on Friday to break up the longest road trip of the season for the Rockets. At dinner, every player will get a 20-ounce Gatorade to stay hydrated. Avoiding cramps is a clear priority for the Rockets.

"Our starters get a smaller Gatorade before the game and at halftime, too," Striegel said. "We've been doing a lot of liquid IV at the beginning of the year. We go through massive amounts of Gatorade, water, liquid IV, granola bars and fruit snacks every road game."

A small caravan of vehicles, too, accompany every Unity road trip. Along with the players on the charter buses, which Hamilton will ride, Fink and assistant coach Chad Eisenmenger are in the pickup truck that carries the trailer with all of the equipment and supplies Unity brings with it.

A smaller bus also brings the team's student managers and student film crew. Dallas Hollingsworth, Owen Taylor, Camden Wood, Mylie Castle, Blair Kimball, Anna Vasey and McKinley Weller won't play a snap for the Rockets this fall, but their contributions don't go unnoticed by the coaching staff.

"The big thing that I've always tried to do as we've cycled through this a couple times is try to have good student help," Reetz said. "We have a handful of filmers, and I like to get them when they're freshmen and sophomores so we can train them and by the time they're juniors and seniors, they can handle it. Right now, we've got a pretty experienced group that does a great job."

Superstitions have taken hold, too, amid the travel party. In an unassuming school-issued white van that transports the majority of Unity's assistant coaches, Reetz drives to away games. Assistant coach Rich Bonnell drives home. Striegel and Unity's trainer, Josh Shride, sit in the middle seats. Negangard and fellow assistant coach Colin Davis ride in the back seats.

"We all have to sit in the same spots," Striegel said.

It must work. Unity went 5-2 last season in road games and won all six road games the Rockets played during its spring and fall seasons in 2021.

"When Chad and I are on the way home, it's his job to look up all of the area scores and seeing who beat who," Fink said. "The guys on the bus and in the coach's van are the same way. We're all texting each other to see how the games played out."

After Friday night's game in Chillicothe, Unity will have shorter trips the rest of the regular season to Bloomington on Sept. 22 for a game against Central Catholic, to Rantoul on Oct. 6 and to Monticello on Oct. 20.

The preparation and planning won't vary, though.

"It's one of those things we've all been here so long that everybody just does what they do," Striegel said, "and it just kind of happens."

But for Reetz, all he has to do is look just past Hicks Field before a recent practice and realize how much has changed in Unity preparing for a road game now than when he first started helping the program two decades ago.

"We've got such a big team," Reetz said. "We have a trailer now. The fact that we need a trailer tells you everything you need to know."