Were the Union Wildcats excited to play on their new turf field at Stierberger Stadium?
Excited might have been an understatement.
“I love the field. As a head coach and my classroom being literally 50 feet off the field,” Union Head Coach Erick Webster said. “I’ve been watching it be built and I’ve been out here all summer. I feel kind of awkward, but I know the names of the guys who installed the turf. I know about their families. I’ve probably been out here too much.”
But it was Poplar Bluff who triumphed on opening night Friday, taking a 31-14 win back to Butler County.
The visiting Mules were able to control the line of scrimmage while opening holes for running back Bi Nguyen, who ran for 300 yards in the contest.
“Take nothing away from Poplar Bluff. They did a good job tonight,” Webster said. “That little running back (Nguyen) is quicker than a hiccup. He’s a special player. Their quarterback is not too bad, either and they’ve got some linemen who are pretty good.”
Union (0-1) stays home this week to host Borgia (1-0). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
“I have nothing but respect for what Coach (Dale) Gildehaus and the Borgia Knights do and I know they feel the exact same way about us,” Webster said.
Overall, the Wildcats were able to move the ball at times with the highlights coming in the third quarter.
Quarterback Blake Hulsey accounted for all 14 of Union’s points, scoring on runs of three and two yards. The first touchdown came on Union’s opening possession of the second half and was a three-yard run.
The drive marked a huge change from the first half. Webster said there was no huge halftime talk to turn things around.
“We’re not big rah-rah guys,” Webster said. “We corrected errors and we refocused. We’re not going to yell and scream. The Xbox generation kids don’t respond well to that. The game console doesn’t do that to them. We need to fix things, correct things and get them back focused on the task.”
The second score came on a two-yard run with 1:56 to go in the quarter. Hulsey also ran for the two-point conversion.
But Union still struggled in other areas.
“We still didn’t tackle any better,” Webster said.
Poplar Bluff started the game with the opening touchdown, an 84-yard pass play from quarterback Kameron Misner to Tristen Francisco over the left side.
“The first big pass put us on our heels,” Webster said. “We’ve had some movement in the secondary lately. The DB didn’t get his hips turned and underestimated his speed.”
While Nguyen did not score in the first half, his long running plays were able to set up scores and the Mules led 21-0 at the half.
“We had issues with the linebackers not filling correctly. When you run a 30 front, you’ve got to have defensive linemen who take up two blocks,” Webster said. “If they’re not taking up two blocks, somebody’s going to get blocked among the linebackers. If you get one guy blocked, you create a crease and that’s why football is the greatest team sport in the world. But, it hurts sometimes because you feel like you just can’t stop the bleeding. It just keeps going. That’s where we’re at right now. At times we couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
After Union’s first score, Nguyen finally got his touchdown on a one-yard run between the two Union scores. Collin Jones drilled a 28-yard field goal with 9:06 to play for the final score.
But things got ugly late in the game.
“That last two minutes was about the longest two minutes of football I’ve seen,” Webster stated.
Union made mistakes, but Webster felt some of those came through experimentation.
“Mistakes did hurt us tonight,” Webster said. “I don’t necessarily mind the mistakes. Teams that don’t make mistakes in Game 1 are the teams not doing different stuff and are not taking chances. We’re always going to be a team that takes chances. We’re still gamblers at heart. That’s who we are.”
Offensively, Union gained 175 passing and 79 rushing yards.
Hulsey completed 20 of 28 attempts for 175 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions.
Logan Bellamy was the top receiver with five catches for 56 yards. Jobie Richardson caught five passes for 41 yards. Nick Eads had three catches for 22 yards. Receivers with two catches were TreLin Edwards (45 yards), Jacob Carman (7) and Drew Reed (1). Tyler Pace had one catch for three yards.
Hulsey led the rushing game with eight carries for 48 yards. Nick Maher ran six times for 16 yards. One-carry backs were Bellamy (8), Carman (4), Pace (3), Reed (1) and Edwards (-1).
Defensively, Maher was the top tackler with 15 solo stops and four assists. One of his tackles was for a loss.
Joe Lasky and Ryan Schumaker each had seven tackles while Carman, Bellamy, Logan Meyer and Casey Peth each had six stops.
Bellamy recorded one interception, in the end zone during the first quarter.
Webster knows emotions probably will be running high Friday night when Borgia visits Stierberger Stadium.
“As a head coach, you’ve got to get a feel to whether to be a brake or an accelerator,” Webster said. “Typically, when you go into rivalry week, you spend more time being a brake and tell them to slow down, that it’s just another game.”
Webster feels it should be a thrilling game.
“I know for people in this community and that community, that it’s a great rivalry, and a healthy one at that,” said Webster. “It’s not like ‘we hate those guys.’ There’s a lot of respect.”
The Knights won at Owensville last Friday, 26-6, with all points being scored in the second half.
Last year, the Knights rolled over Union, 56-12, something which Union returners should remember.
“Hopefully, our guys will be hungry,” Webster said.
Borgia currently is tied for third in Class 4 District 3 along with Westminster Christian at 33 points. Union is tied with Sullivan and Ladue for seventh with seven points.
Even though the Knights won over Owensville Friday, they’re entering the game with a quarterback controversy.
Drake Raftery led the Knights offensively from the position after taking over in the second half from Justin Baylard. Raftery ran for 119 yards in the game while passing for 45 yards.
Baylard ran for 42 yards and threw for 15 yards.
Other than those two, the Knights were bottled up on the ground.
Through the air, Kelan Winters was Borgia’s top receiver on the night with three catches for 25 yards. He also posted 11 tackles and one interception, which was returned for a touchdown.
John Hanneken posted 12 tackles with two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Other top tacklers were Josh Kleekamp, Logan Bell and Hunter Warmack.
Brendan Joyce recovered two fumbles.
PB - Tristen Francisco 84 pass from Kameron Misner (Collin Jones kick), 7:42 Poplar Bluff 7, Union 0
PB - Misner 1 run (Jones kick), 2:51 Poplar Bluff 14, Union 0
PB - Jake Pulliam 1 run (Jones kick), 7:08
UNI - Blake Hulsey 3 run (kick failed), 9:15
PB - Bi Nguyen 1 run (Jones kick), 5:54
UNI - Hulsey 2 run (Hulsey run) 1:56
PB - Jones 28 field goal, 9:06