ROCHELLE — After starting the shortened six-game season with three consecutive losses, the last thing Rochelle’s varsity football team wanted was to fall behind when the Hubs hosted the winless Sandwich Indians for an Interstate 8 Conference matchup Friday evening.
Not much went Rochelle’s way over the first three-plus quarters, though, as Sandwich running back Seven Tornga scored two touchdowns to put the Indians ahead 12-0 with about nine minutes remaining in regulation. Looking to avoid an 0-4 record, the Hubs combined newfound energy with some fourth-quarter magic, rallying for two touchdowns of their own and shocking Sandwich with a 13-12 victory. Rochelle (1-3) faces Sycamore on the road next Friday at 6 p.m.
“It was awesome that our team was finally able to come together,” said senior Ben Harvey, who rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown in the win. “We showed that we could do that at the end of the game tonight. We were very hesitant at the start of the game, but we had a good talk at halftime and we were able to turn our energy up in the fourth quarter. We need to remember this feeling and we need to keep working hard and giving 100-percent effort.”
The Hubs strung together two promising first-quarter drives, but the first ended with a turnover on downs in Sandwich territory while the second resulted in a fumble inside the Indian red zone. With 29.9 seconds left in the first half, Sandwich went ahead 6-0 on a 1-yard plunge from Tornga, but the Indians missed the extra-point attempt on the ensuing snap.
The score remained 6-0 at halftime after Sandwich defender Cole Mansur intercepted Hub quarterback Josh Lloyd on Rochelle’s final offensive play of the second quarter. With the Hubs needing some sort of spark, junior Zach Sanford made a momentum-changing play on special teams, blocking a Sandwich punt that put Rochelle in plus territory during the third quarter.
But the Hubs fell less than a yard short on a fourth-down rushing attempt during their next possession to give Sandwich the ball back. The change-of-possession preceded Tornga’s 3-yard rushing touchdown that gave the Indians a two-score advantage early in the fourth quarter. Searching for an answer, Rochelle turned to sophomore running back Garrett Gensler, who delivered a series of strong runs to put the Hubs in the Sandwich red zone once again.
“I’m trying to do whatever I can for the seniors because I know it’s been a tough year for them,” said Gensler, who rushed for a team-high 142 yards on Friday. “We were getting some movement during the first three quarters, but we weren’t able to finish. We were able to pick our energy up toward the end of the game and we really got going. It’s a huge win for us.”
Gensler’s efforts set up a rare successful pass attempt from the Hubs, with Lloyd finding junior tight end Ethan Wells near the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown strike. Rochelle found some more magic soon after, with senior Nolan Morrissette successfully converting an onside kick that set up a 14-yard, go-ahead touchdown run from Harvey with 2:15 left to play.
“We had a slow start to the season but we really needed this one,” Wells said. “It was our first time playing under the lights on a Friday night and we really wanted this win. All I remember was our coach calling the play for me and running toward the sideline to catch the ball. Our confidence is up there and I thought we showed what we could do during the second half.”
Pinned deep inside their own territory, the Indians ran themselves into a fourth-and-4 situation as the clock ticked under one minute to play. Pressuring off the edge, junior linebacker Tanner Lager made the win-sealing tackle for the Hubs, sacking Sandwich quarterback Drew Theurer. Lager led RTHS with nine tackles, while seniors Ethan Albers and Gabe Neece each had seven.