Rochester needed time for its playoff offense to awaken. Defense provided it
ROCHESTER — Rochester’s defense bought the offensive unit time to jell and when it did, the Rockets were tough to beat.
The fourth-seeded Rockets overcame four first-half turnovers and receiver Parker Gillespie did the same with an ankle injury to catch three touchdown passes as Rochester beat No. 13 Effingham 45-14 in a Class 4A first-round playoff game at Rocket Booster Stadium on Saturday.
“That first half, I don’t even think we really knew what was going on,” Rochester senior center Blake Buckles said. “But that second half, that halftime really kicked us in gear and we figured out who we were in the second half and we got it rolling.”
Rochester (9-1) will host Breese Central (8-2) in the second round. No. 5 Breese Central beat No. 12 Mount Zion 21-18 on Saturday in Breese.
Defense gets it done
Rochester’s defense sacked Effingham quarterback Tanner Pontious four times from four different juniors: Tyson Binion, Parker Lyons, Nolan Mrozowski and Jack Swaney. Senior defensive backs Amar’e Franklin and Brady Baird each came up with an interception of Pontious.
That helped the Rockets’ defense limit Effingham to 6 yards of offense and one first down in the first quarter, and 81 yards and seven first downs in the entire first half.
Rochester defensive coordinator Steve Buecker missed the first four days of practice because he was sick. He watched film of Effingham and from Rochester practices while at home but stayed away from the team until Friday.
Rochester coach Derek Leonard said this was a credit to the rest of the assistant coaches.
“I want to give a shout-out to all my coaches,” Leonard said. “It shows if I’m missing, if Steve’s missing, if coach (Eric) Warren is missing: all our guys pick up and I’ve got a great coaching staff.
“All our coaches stepped up, and I’m so proud of those guys. You see how the defense played: it was awesome practices, it was an awesome game plan and they won us this game.”
Lyons said they were prepared well to face Effingham’s offense, which limited leading rusher Weldon Dunston to 84 yards.
“We had the game plan since the first day of practice,” Lyons said. “We knew what they were going to run ... we just kind of stuck with it and battled with them.
“I think we were playing pretty well. We weren’t playing our best game, obviously, and the two touchdowns just kind of killed us. We’re going for the doughnut (shutout) every time.”
Effingham (5-5) led 7-0 early and tied the Rockets 14-14 with 1 minute, 1 second to play in the half. But the Flaming Hearts weren’t marching down the field on Rochester. Instead, four first-half turnovers by the Rockets (one interception and three fumbles) led to Effingham’s two scores.
“It’s been scary because since the (62-27 loss in Week 1 to Sacred Heart-Griffin), we’ve almost played a perfect eight games,” Leonard said. “That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but from a turnover and major mistakes offensively, we had played (so well). I had it in the back of my head, I knew this game was coming. And hopefully it was a lesson. The great thing is we won.”
Reiss fumbled on the Rockets’ first touch and gave the Hearts the ball on the Rochester 17-yard line. Four plays later, Pontious scored on a 2-yard run as Effingham took a 7-0 lead.
“We came out really soft and the coaches were preaching it to us all week and we didn’t listen to them,” Reiss said. “We got (reminded of that during) halftime and we came out a lot stronger.”
Rochester jumped in front 14-7 behind a 36-yard touchdown pass from Reiss to Gillespie and then a 6-yard TD run from Reiss.
“I thought if we limited the turnovers we were having and we could get in the end zone, that we could turn it around and be Rocket football,” Gillespie said.
With 3:04 to play in the half, Effingham got the ball at the RHS 34 after a pass from Reiss was tipped and then intercepted.
Pontious finished off the short-yardage drive with a 1-yard TD run for a 14-14 tie.
That may have been the wake-up call the Rockets needed.
Rochester ran its two-minute drill and drove the ball 78 yards, finished off by Swaney hauling in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Reiss to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
“We got into halftime and all these seniors, it just kind of hit them that this could be their last game so we just came out playing for them, playing for everybody and we got it done,” Rochester junior Henry Buecker said.
Effingham immediately fumbled the ball on its first drive of the second half and Reiss rumbled in for a 4-yard TD to put Rochester ahead 28-14. Big third-down plays from Henry Buecker (a pass deflection) and Mrozowski (a sack) led to back-to-back Rochester scoring drives as the Rockets inflated their lead to 42-14 with 4:13 left in the third.
Zoe Cormier connected on a 35-yard field goal for the Rockets’ final score. She was also 6-for-6 on her extra-point attempts. She improved to 54 of 59 successful extra-point tries.
“She’s awesome. I love Zoe. She keeps her head down, she works hard, she’s humble and she’s a hell of a kicker," Leonard said. "What can you say about her? She goes down as one of the top players in the conference as a kicker."
Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.