PEKIN — Rochelle senior Gavin Ansteth had a night he won’t forget anytime soon.
Ansteth was a one-man wrecking ball Friday evening, when the Hubs kicked off the varsity football season against Pekin. The senior compiled career-highs in carries (29) and rushing yards (137) while recording a team-high five touchdowns on the ground as Rochelle dominated the second half to defeat the Dragons 35-21. Ansteth became the first Hub rusher with a five-score performance since Ehren Metzger totaled five against Chicago (Agricultural Science) in 2017.
“It’s crazy right now and I can’t really believe it,” Ansteth said. “We stuck together and we did what we had to do. It’s an awesome feeling... We’re feeling confident after this game and we feel like we have a tough team.”
Despite the Rochelle offense finishing with 353 total yards, it was the defense that made the first significant play of the game. Senior Charlie Jandak forced a fumble that senior teammate Nick Albers recovered in Pekin territory, and the turnover resulted in a 1-yard rushing score by Ansteth on fourth down to put Rochelle ahead 7-0 in the first quarter.
Sophomore Braden Alfano then sacked Pekin quarterback Wyatt VanNess to stall the second Dragons drive, leading to a punt and another scoring drive by the Hubs. Junior Ben Harvey (11 carries for 110 yards) broke loose for a 42-yard run down the left sideline to set up Ansteth’s 12-yard rushing touchdown that gave the Hubs a 14-0 advantage.
“We did what we know how to do and that’s run the football,” Harvey said. “We wanted to run the clock down and that’s exactly what we did tonight… This win is huge for us. Our seniors are leading the team very well, and if we can keep working hard in practice and keep this momentum going, we can have a pretty successful season.”
Pekin didn’t go away quietly, as the Dragons scored two unanswered touchdowns and tied the game 14-14 in the second quarter. Running back Braxton Tibbs found open space for a 26-yard touchdown rush, and a Rochelle punt led to VanNess connecting with wide receiver Sebastian Hill on a 34-yard touchdown pass. The Hubs drove late in the first half, but Hill intercepted a pass intended for sophomore Owen Angell in the Pekin end zone.
While the Dragons capped off the first half with momentum, the Rochelle offense did everything possible to keep Pekin’s scoring attack off the field. Ansteth’s 3-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter put Rochelle up 21-14 and melted nearly eight minutes off the game clock. Ansteth added No. 4 in the fourth quarter, and after Rochelle’s defense forced a turnover on downs, Ansteth completed the team’s final scoring drive with a 3-yard rush.
The Hubs controlled the football for over 34 minutes, while the Dragons maintained possession for only 13 minutes and 14 seconds. The Pekin offense saw the field only three times in the second half, only scoring on a 29-yard touchdown pass from VanNess to Gabe Holtke with 36 seconds remaining in regulation. Rochelle (1-0) will face Johnsburg on the road next Friday.
“We had to fix what we messed up during the first half and we did that by holding onto the ball,” Ansteth said. “We’re going to practice even harder than we did last week and I think we can beat Johnsburg.”