ROSE HILL — As Rose Hill coach Greg Slade wrapped up his postgame talk Saturday night following the Rockets' 24-8 victory over Abilene in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs, he turned his attention to senior Dillon Rapp.
A difficult week turned to sadness Friday when Rapp's grandfather, Ray Buchanan, died. It was a heavy emotional load to carry into the game.
"It's been hard," Rapp said. "He was my role model. To see him, the suffering.It's been pretty sad. I needed to come out and perform for him and get the win.... It was tough to focus, but I had to get it done for the team and the coaches, to stay focused on the game, not my grandpa.
"But he was always there for me. Well, he still is, but it's different."
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Rapp's teammates rallied around him, and he played well — he finished with four receptions for 98 yards and an interception near the goal line.
"You have to give him major props," quarterback Tyler Shirley said. "He's had a rough week. Him coming out there and, not only coming out, but he played really well."
Rose Hill, which will play at Buhler (10-1) on Friday, had a few rough patches early — three of the Rockets' first five plays ended in losses of seven and five yards, plus a holding penalty.
"I think always, the first play, there's the little nerves in you," Shirley said. "We finally got it together and said we need to do this right here."
Facing a second and 25, Jordan Leabo jump-started the offense with a 30-yard pass to Rapp at the Abilene 21. Two plays later, Shirley hit Heath Train for the 17-yard score and a 6-0 lead with 8:48 to go in the first period.
Shirley had pinpoint accuracy. He was 7-of-7 passing in the first quarter for 94 yards. He finished 11 of 15 for 138 yards.
"We felt like we'd had so much success running the ball (this season) that we'd have to pass to open (the defense) up a little bit," Slade said. "Tyler did a good job, and we completed some passes to our receivers to make it better for the run game."
Junior Laqua Mayes (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) used his quickness to pick apart the Abilene defense as he rushed for 87 first-half yards; he finished with a game-high 138 rushing yards on 21 carries, including a six-yard touchdown in the final period.
Just as the defense seemed to get used to his cuts, jukes and speed, Rose Hill turned to sophomore Derrick Decker (6-4, 185). He bulled through the line for 73 first-half yards on eight carries, finishing with 94. He also had a three-yard run late in the first quarter to give Rose Hill the 14-0 lead.
"It's an opportunity to bring two different styles to the game," Slade said. "You have one guy that's quick and fast and can take it to the house every time he touches it. And then you have a power runner. It's a nice complement of each other, and they do a great job. They are very unselfish, too."
Abilene responded by moving the ball well. But eight plays into the drive, quarterback Nick Rice was intercepted by Rapp.
"It was a jump ball, and I just had to outjump him," Rapp said.
While the first half was smooth and each team established some rhythm, that wasn't the case in the second half. Abilene was called for seven second-half penalties and had five holding penalties in the game.
Late in the first half, Abilene's Curry Sexton raced 76 yards for a touchdown, but it was called back because of holding. He had another 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that was called back, as well.
He finished with 117 rushing yards, including a 63-yard scoring run in the final four minutes.
"Twenty-five penalties, that's ridiculous," Abilene coach Jeff Geist said of the combined penalties assessed. "Both sides. Five uncontrollable factors we couldn't deal with.
"I'm beside myself with how it all turned out. Our kids played a heck of a ballgame. Two scores taken away from us, It's a whole different ballgame."
Abilene (9-2) 0 0 0 8 — 8 Rose Hill (10-1) 14 3 0 7 — 24
RH — Train 17 pass from Shirley (miss kick)
RH — Decker 3 run (Decker run)
RH — Knight 32-yard FG
RH—Mayes 6 run (Knight kick)
A—Sexton 63 run (Sexton run)
Rushing — Abilene, Cu. Sexton 11-117, Ward 16-86, Hoekman 4-9, Co. Sexton 1-7, Rice 1-(-13). Rose Hill, Mayes 21-138, Decker 15-94, Shirley 9-8.
Passing — Abilene, Rice 6-22-90-1, Cu. Sexton 0-1-0-0. Rose Hill, Shirley 11-15-138-0, Leabo 1-1-30-0, Rapp 0-1-0-1.
Receiving — Abilene, Fritson 1-43, Womochil 3-25, Cu. Sexto 2-22. Rose Hill, Rapp 4-98, Leabo 3-3, Train 3-24, Yates 1-9, Mayes 1-6.