At 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds, Austin Rooth isn't the most imposing physical specimen on the undefeated Mercer County football team.
But as one of coach Nat Zunkel's first off the bench, the senior outside linebacker has been a secret weapon of sorts for the Golden Eagles' defensive corps, especially throughout their ongoing run to the Class 2A state semifinals.
It was one timely play in particular during last Saturday's quarterfinal showdown at Amboy by this week's Area Pacesetter for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus that secured for Mercer County a 33-21 win, a 12-0 record and one more home-field date for next weekend's semifinals.
After the Eagles overcame a one-point deficit, scoring to go up 26-21 midway the fourth quarter, the Clippers were trying to mount a counteroffensive to retake the lead, but Rooth was having none of that. He picked off Amboy quarterback Tyson Powers and cashed it in 48 yards later with 2:29 left in the game to provide the clinching points.
"Coach (Nat) Zunkel called a good play on that one," said Rooth. "I followed their tight end like I was supposed to, they threw to him, and luckily I was there. I grabbed it and went to the house. That felt awesome, especially having the whole team at my back running down the sidelines."
Zunkel, who handles the defensive coordinator duties in addition to being the Eagles' head coach, felt particularly proud of his top reserve.
"He was really beaming after that one," said Zunkel. "You know, he's one of those kids that really deserves this. He works so hard, and he's come up with some big plays the last couple of weeks. Against Rockford Lutheran (a 42-14 second-round win), Austin was huge for us both on defense and special teams."
Zunkel also praised Rooth for his speed, which comes in particularly handy against teams that try to use the passing game to stretch the Mercer County defense out a bit.
"He's not really big, but he's really fast, naturally fast,'' Zunkel said. "Out in space, he's dynamic. He's always the first one off the bench, subbing in at both outside linebacker slots, and he does a great job. Incertain situations, he'll play more than some of the others."
For his part, Rooth is fine with his role as a "12th man" for the Golden Eagles, particularly since only Clifton Central (11-1)-- their opponent in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. semifinal showdown in Aledo -- stands between them and a state date at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
"Whatever helps the team win," said Rooth. "It's all about everyone stepping up and doing their job."
He does admit that the postseason atmosphere gives him an extra adrenalin kick.
"Playoff football is awesome. It's the best feeling in the world," said Rooth, who has nearly 70 total tackles but whose game-clinching pick last weekend was his first of the year. "We all dream of it (playing for a state title), and I try to perform my best in the playoffs."
In that context, the more Zunkel thinks about Rooth's pick-six, the greater importance it takes on.
"They had just driven for almost a quarter and scored (to go up 21-20), then after we regained the lead, they were driving again," Zunkel said. "It meant a great deal that (Rooth's interception) was able to happen, and for Austin to come up with that play, what a great feeling."
With the Eagles getting to make one more appearance this fall at their home nest of George Pratt Memorial Field, Rooth hopes to delight the home crowd with some more big plays and another win.
"I hope so. I'm going to try my hardest," said Rooth. "It's good to have that home-field advantage, and I think our team will really respond to playing at home. I'll be happy to play my part."
Area Pacesetter -- Mercer County's Austin Rooth
Favorite restaurant: Buffalo Wild Wings Favorite movie: "Friday Night Lights Favorite TV: The Outdoor Channel Favorite music: Florida Georgia Line Favorite school subject: Ag classes Favorite athlete: Packers' linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. Favorite NFL team: Pittsburgh Steelers Role model: "My dad, who played high school football for Westmer. He's really helped me out a lot.'' In my spare time: "Help my dad working on the farm." Parents: Ron and Chris Rooth, Joy
In the running Hannah Nimrick, Riverdale: Tallied 15 kills, 44 assists, 25 digs and four service aces in two IHSA Class 2A State Volleyball Tournament matches as the Rams took third place, their first-ever state volleyball trophy.
Tanner Matlick, Mercer County: Continued his torrid postseason by completing 12 of 19 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown along with a rushing TD as the Golden Eagles bested Amboy-LaMoille 33-21 to reach the Class 2A football Final Four.
Chris Neeld, Mercer County: Had a strong game on defense with three tackles for loss and a quarterback sack as the Golden Eagles reached the semifinals for the first time.
Jess Corson and Sydney Mericle, Riverdale: Corson netted 15 kills, 22 digs and three aces in two 2A Final Four matches, with Mericle going for 12 kills and 14 digs as the Rams scored bronze.
Today is Wednesday, July 30, the 211th day of 2014. There are 154 days left in the year. 1864 -- 150 years ago: After Sept. 1, every small box of matches will be required to have a 3 cent duty Lincoln stamp on it, and every large box will be one cent for every 100 matches. 1889 -- 125 years ago: Rock Island residents had contributed a total of $1,293 to the American Red Cross for the Johnstown flood relief fund. 1914 -- 100 years ago: Capt. Clark Means, new darkhorse twirler for the ARGUS staff, was in great form in his initial contest as a mound laborer. The result was that THE ARGUS trimmed the Union 6-5. 1939 -- 75 years ago: Hunter and Humprey Moody, young Decatur, Ill, brothers, lack only a few hours of establishing a new world light plane endurance record. 1964 -- 50 years ago: Gates of the 110th annual Mercer County Fair swing open tonight at Aledo for a full week of day and night activity. More that $36,000 will be paid in premiums and race purses. 1989 -- 25 years ago: The baseball field carved out of the cornfield near Dyersville, Iowa, continues to keep dreams alive for hundreds of visitors. Tourists from 26 state and France have visited Dan Lansing's farm to see the baseball diamond seen in the hit movie "Field of Dreams."