'Going to state or going home': The plays that saved Williamsville's football season

Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

WILLIAMSVILLE — The game was on the line and all of a sudden, Tolono Unity running back Matt Brown was back to his all-state form again.  

With the clock winding down and Williamsville trying to hold onto its five-point lead, Brown got the Rockets to the Bullets’ 15-yard line and 4 yards to go for a first down or 11 additional yards for the go-ahead score. 

But Williamsville defensive tackle John Layman, lined up as a defensive end, came in and brought Brown down at the line of scrimmage on third down.  

It wasn’t time to celebrate though, Layman said.  

"We were talking in the huddle (on fourth down) and we said, ‘This is the play; right here. Either we’re going to state or we’re going home and not putting on pads anymore,’” a joyous Layman said. “We knew after the stop I had that we had to get it done or we were going home.” 

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After Unity burned through its final two timeouts, Joshua Cates deflected a pass in the end zone to force a turnover on downs and allow Williamsville to eat the final 63 seconds of the clock for a 12-7 win in the Class 3A semifinals on Saturday at Paul Jenkins Field. 

Williamsville's Nolan Bates celebrates after he and the defense stopped Tolono Unity on 4th down giving the game to Williamsville in the last minute of the game.

“It looked the same to me as every run play the whole game until probably three seconds after the snap,” Cates said. “I saw the ball out of the corner of my eye. I was trying to get back to (Unity receiver Aiden Porter) because he beat me a little bit.” 

Williamsville coach Aaron Kunz said Cates and the rest of the defensive backs allowed the Bullets to focus on stopping the run. 

“We put nine in the box because those guys can play man,” Kunz said. “Gage Knoles and Josh Cates really were incredible today and then Carson Kohler and Nolan Bates at our safety and rover had guys coming out of the backfield. It was an incredible effort by our defensive backs.” 

No. 3 Williamsville (12-1) will face No. 4 Elmhurst IC Catholic (12-1) in the Class 3A state championship game at 4 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. IC Catholic blanked Byron 35-0 in the other semifinal. 

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It was a fitting end for a Williamsville victory. After Unity scored on its first possession, the Bullets’ defense stood tall and stood firm to buy time for the Williamsville offense to find just enough of a spark. 

That offensive spark was provided by linebacker Colin Ripperda, who had four carries for 16 yards on Williamsville’s first drive of the second half after not getting one touch in the first half.  

“I don’t think it was the plan (not to be used in the first half); it just happened like that,” Ripperda said. “It really got us going. I was really nervous when I finally got to go in (on offense) but it was a great turnaround.” 

Williamsville's Head Coach Aaron Kunz, right, celebrates with his team after winning the semi-final against Tolono Unity Saturday Nov. 11, 2022.

With the Bullets finally moving the Unity defense back, quarterback Jake Seman found Ethan Hinds for a 13-yard gain and two plays later, Seman ran in from 10 yards out to get the Bullets on the court and trim Unity’s lead to just 7-6. 

At halftime, Ripperda said he wanted a crack. 

“I was in (assistant coach Derek Smith’s) ear, just going, ‘Hey just give me the ball. Just hand it off to me,’” Ripperda said.  

The Bullets’ defense couldn’t take a vacation yet, though. Later in the third, a lost fumble on a pitch from Seman gave Unity the ball at the Williamsville 11-yard line, still leading by that single point. Unity quarterback Cale Rawdin had two no-gain runs before he was sacked for a 14-yard loss. On fourth-and-24 from the 25, his pass attempt sailed out of bounds.  

“I really think as a unit, (Williamsville) hit us in the mouth,” Rawdin said. “We haven’t been hit in the mouth (much this season).” 

The next Unity possession ended in a punt and the Bullets’ defense was rewarded as Seman found a gap for a 1-yard touchdown run with 7 minutes, 33 seconds left and the 12-7 advantage.  

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On the Rockets’ final drive and facing a first-and-15 from their own 48, Rawdin handed off to Brown for a 9-yard run, who then followed that up with a 10-yard run for a first-and-10 from the Williamsville 33.  

Brown entered the game with 1,831 yards rushing. On Unity’s first possession — a 48-yard drive after the Rockets recovered a Jackson Workman fumble — Brown ran three times for 33 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown as Unity took a 7-0 lead.  

Williamsville's Harley Sharp runs the ball during the game against Tolono Unity Saturday Nov. 19, 2022.

Until Unity’s final drive, Brown was limited to 37 yards on his next 21 carries. He had 31 more on six more carries until Layman brought him down for no gain to set up fourth down.  

“John’s just playing out of this world,” Kunz said. “He’s really come along these last four or five weeks and he’s become pretty darned nasty. He was excellent all day.” 

Unity beat Williamsville 28-7 in the 3A quarterfinals a year ago. The Bullets and Rockets have split their four postseason meetings. 

“I told the guys earlier, right before the game, ‘We ain’t going out like that,’” Layman said. “We may have lost last year but we ain’t losing twice.” 

Contact Ryan Mahan: 788-1546,,