By Wes Morgan & Tony Messner
NILES — Friday night was a turning point for the Sturgis football team. A 34-33 victory on the road against Niles doesn’t guarantee the Trojans have arrived by any means, but it’s an indication that they’ve moved on from an ugly loss to Portage Central to start the year.
And their confidence appears to have been restored following the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference non-divisional contest.
“I like those kind of games, but I was nervous,” Sturgis coach Jimmy Lamb said. “Our defense was big the last four plays.”
With four minutes remaining in the game, Sturgis (1-1) was forced to punt. Niles pushed its way to the red zone but a 26-yard field goal attempt was blocked. The ball was batted to Max Maher — a rare occurrence that stunned the senior running back/defensive back.
“We were yelling, ‘Run, run,’” Lamb said. “It was a live ball. For a split second it looked like he was going to set the ball on the ground. Then all of the sudden he tried to run it across the field. That was a super scary moment.”
Lamb was particularly impressed with how the defense played throughout the back-and-forth game. The teams traded scores, starting with senior running back Matt Phillips’ three-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter.
“They were in lockdown [in the fourth quarter],” Lamb said. “They played their hearts out. You lose 55-0 and a lot of people are probably putting [a lot of pressure] on themselves. They took care of business.”
Phillips ended the night with 70 yards on 14 carries and seven tackles, senior quarterback Chance Stewart completed 10 of 18 passing attempts for 154 yards and three scores without an interception and rushed for another touchdown, and senior receiver Kalvyn Bowdish, in his first appearance of the year, hauled in six receptions for 116 yards and three TDs. Playing up on varsity for the first time, Tristen Stewart registered a team-high 8.5 tackles at safety.
The Vikings (0-2) registered 21 first downs on their way to 447 total yards of offense compared to the Trojans’ eight first downs and 244 total yards. Both teams finished with one turnover. Niles ran 77 plays while the Trojans maximized just 44. The Trojans held the Vikings to just 6 for 15 on third down and 3 for 6 on fourth down.
It was a difficult offensive start for the Vikings with Sturgis employing an effective run game and chewing up the clock, but events turned intriguing late with both teams firing on all cylinders offensively.
Sturgis started off slow, punting the ball away after a brief offensive possession, but Niles fumbled on their second play offensively and Sturgis’ LA Vasquez recovered. A Sturgis score followed in three short plays to make it 7-0, on a three-yard run by Sturgis tailback Matt Phillips. Phillips continued to run the ball well throughout the first half tallying 75 rushing yards.
Niles isolation style offense was able to put points on the board quickly with short passes and yards after the catch, and on Niles next possession Ra’Quon Glenn caught a short pass and ran it for a 26-yard gain from quarterback Sean Craig, and shortly thereafter Craig threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Glenn and the score was tied 7-7.
Sturgis set up their attack on the ground, and as the first half wore on Stewart got heavily involved. Taking on the punting duties again, Stewart pinned Niles deep with a 59-yard punt after an incomplete pass left Sturgis with a long fourth down. On the following possession for Sturgis Stewart warmed up on an 11-yard completion to Jack Caywood and a 25-yard touchdown strike to flanker Kalvyn Bowdish. Bowdish was a consistent offensive presence for Sturgis all night.
Late in the first half Sturgis return man Core Baldwin took one back fifty six yards to set up another score and going into halftime Stewart added a 3-yard rushing touchdown to his night, as well as an interception just before half. Stewart’s second touchdown pass of the night, also a connection with Calvyn Bowdish, went for 21-yards with 2:54 remaining in the second quarter and the Trojans took a 28-20 lead into halftime.
The second half showed a defensive improvement for both teams, and Sturgis run game became laborious to maintain. Niles put together a long run in the middle of the third quarter, but fumbled the ball into the end zone and they were able to recover for a touchdown. On another broken play late in the game Glenn had a deflected pass fall into his arms turning into a 48-yard touchdown.
Both teams got tired late and Niles players suffered all night on the sidelines from cramps, however, it was their struggles in the special teams game that cost them the game, missing two extra points and losing by one.