East Union is football program of a different sort.
The Urchins have no football stadium. The team practices in an open field with painted sidelines and endzones across from the school.
They have no locker room, no place to lounge and relax before taking the field.
For home games, played 15 miles away at BNA Park, the team takes to the field after waiting beside the bus that brought them, already dressed, to the game.
They are a team that no one expected to make it in their first year as a member of Division 1-2A, a team that has surprised even the kids whose names are listed on the roster.
“I think we play harder because we don’t have all that stuff,” senior running back Jacob Elder said.
“It helps the situation in that our kids don’t know any different. We’ve always done the same thing, the field is our facility, we take the bus to all the games, they just play,” Head Coach Scott Duley said.
The Urchins opened the season with a 6-0 win streak, buoyed by the enocouragement of the coaching stafft that guide them and the support of the school and fans, senior Blake Spruill said.
Spruill leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns, with 1022 yards and 13 scores – not counting the field goals or extra points he has made as the team’s kicker.
The senior isn’t the only player pulling double (or triple) duty as the Urchins roster is made up of 26 men – almost all of them play on at least two sides of the ball.
“It feels unbelievable that we are in the playoffs, and its incredible that we are 7-3 for the season,” Duley said following the Urchins practice on Thursday.
East Union is also home to a powerlifting state championship – a program ran by Duley in the spring and the beginning of a off-season conditioning program that gave the Urchins an edge.
“I think a big reason why we got off to a 6-0 start is due to being in better shape, other teams had kids cramping up in the third or fourth quarter, we didn’t have that. We had put in the time and could just play the game,” Duley said.
Now that the stakes have been placed just a bit higher, the team is all to aware of what their first playoff appearance means.
“I’m not ready for it to be my last game,” senior quarterback D.J. Armstrong said, “I just want to win. This is where I started, I’ve been here for four years and I don’t want it to end.”
Armstrong is one of a handful of players who began with the program in its original form – as the Union County football team.
The team was a co-cop, compromised of players from East Union, West Union, Ingomar and Myrtle. After the program dissolved in 2011, East Union carried on with a football team.
“Our success also hinges on the other coaches, if they didn’t encourage their kids to come out then we’d have a different story,” Duley said.
Baseball coach Chris Bail, basketball coach Tim McDonald and cross country coach Nathan McLellen have all sent athletes to the football program, including four first time starters who signed up in the spring.
“Those first time guys really stepped up and filled the holes well,” offensive and defensive lineman Evan Bullock said.
“I don’t know that we’d be where we are if not for them,” Lane Plunk, the teams leading wide receiver, said.
The atmosphere of the Urchins practice is that of a family – coaches who care about their kids beyond what happens on the field.
“I do think that’s a part of it, the biggest part, that they take something away from the time they spend on the practice field and in games. I want them to come away with some lessons learned from the game and the staff, that they know how to be men of integrity,” Duley said.
The Urchins know that they are the underdog, but they’re not concerned.
“Playoffs are playoffs,” Elder said.
“We got here the same way everyone else did, we worked the same, so it doesn’t matter, we sort of like it,” Plunk said.
H.W. Byers has yet to lose a game in the season, winning Division 2-2A. Like East Union, Byers is participating in a new division for the first time after moving into Class 2A during the Mississippi High School Activities Association’s reclassification.
Byers will remain in 2A at least through the 2015 school year.
“I think this being a road game will be a help. We actually play better on the road,” Duley said, “It’s for a couple of different reasons, but a big one is that we have a locker room. When we play at home we don’t have anywhere to go to talk as a team.
“There are people around, a lot of distractions and its hard for them to concentrate. On the road, we can go inside and focus and they usually just play better,” Duley said.
Regardless of the outcome during Friday’s game, Duley and the team have created something special.
“They are a special group and its been a privilege to coach them and spend time with them. I just hope they take something away from their time other than football – its more than football,” Duley said.
“It’s been a great season, better than I thought, but that’s okay. It’s been a lot of fun,” Bullock said. “We worked hard, we found something to play for. We’ve had a good time.”