By Graham Couch
UNION CITY — On the final play of the game Thursday night, Union City running back Aaron Watson scooted past White Pigeon’s defense into the end zone.
For what felt like a few seconds — but might have barely been one — both teams looked disappointed. Finally, a member of the White Pigeon defense spoke up.
“Don’t worry about it, we got a W!” someone shouted, or something very close to that.
The mantra for the Chiefs this season, dating back to last winter, is “family” and “finish.”
As the former Thursday, White Pigeon did the latter, this 23-man roster’s depth and fortitude tested in a 23-12 win on a muggy night in Union City.
The Chargers’ final touchdown was irrelevant, though in that moment of disappointment, one could see how important success was to a White Pigeon program beginning to believe, on a night this program has been preparing for since February.
This was just an opener. But it didn’t feel like it. Not as several players stood and addressed their teammates, sharing how much it meant to be a part of this group, this family, this community. This was end-of-journey emotion. But with Week 1 hope.
“That’s a great group, because we lack depth,” said White Pigeon defensive coordinator Kurt Twichell, filling in as head coach for Joseph Morsaw, who served a one-game suspension Thursday for two sideline infractions last season. “They had nothing behind them and when adversity struck, they finished. They were able to dig deep and finish. It’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen as a young coach here. I’m very, very proud of them.”
White Pigeon won this game with big plays and defense. All three of the Chiefs’ touchdowns came from at least 28 yards out, beginning with a 28-yard run by senior Cahil Krajniak to cap a 10-play opening drive.
“That lead is what gets you (going) at first,” Krajniak said. “It sets the mentality for your team.”
White Pigeon’s advantage reached 16-0 at the half, when, from 25 yards out, Dylan Hochstetler found Mike Crowl at the goal line 7 seconds before the break. Crowl stole the ball from a Union City defensive back and fell into the end zone.
Making matters more demoralizing for the Chargers, at that point, they still didn’t have a first down.
Watson’s 72-yard score for Union City at the start of the fourth quarter changed the vibe, but only until White Pigeon’s Chas Rathburn stuffed the Chargers’ Nate Champion on the 2-point try, keeping the margin at 10.
“The difference in this game is we stuck together,” said Rathburn, who had eight tackles and rushed eight times for 38 yards. “We didn’t play for selfish reasons, we played for each other. We knew how badly each one of us wanted to win.”
A minute later, Hochstetler turned a broken play into an entertaining 39-yard score and a 23-6 edge.
Twichell called it the most important play of the game.
“Our last touchdown, it was supposed to be a simple run,” Twichell said. “We missed the pull … but our quarterback, for some reason, acted like it was a boot (leg) and pulled it out around the sideline, and great players make great plays.”
Union City (0-1) tallied someone of a statistical oddity Thursday night, rushing for 219 yards — 149 by Watson — but compiling only four first downs.
It happened in part because of five Chargers turnovers, including two interceptions on plays immediately following first downs.
Shaun Harmon and Matt Eger produced those two INTs from White Pigeon’s perspective. Harmon also recovered two fumbles. Donavon Gremore forced and recovered one, as well.
“We just have the goal of making the playoffs, getting back into playoff contention and trying to get the last SJV (St. Joseph Valley) title,” Eger said.
Thursday, for a night at least, the Chiefs (1-0) looked — and felt — on the right track.
“This is a program that hasn’t had the consistency yet,” Twichell said. “And now with our second year as a staff here, we’ve been able to do the things in the offseason. Now we’re building toward something consistent. Kids know what we expect and they know what they want and they work for what they want.”