What a long strange trip it’s been for the Union Hill Bulldogs, and we are only three weeks into the season.
The Bulldogs have traveled approximately 1300 miles to play two games in the young season. Neither game was on their schedule when head coach Josh Bragdon put the original slate together in February. In fact, Union Hill will not play a single game that was on their original schedule for the first five weeks of this season.
When you are the most northeastern six-man school in the state, and a contender for reaching the state championship game in Arlington in December, it can be hard to build a schedule.
In February, when the new UIL Classifications come out, football coaches around the state begin to light up the phone lines attempting to make their schedules for the next two years. When you are in a big classification this is usually fairly easy. Coaches and schools have relationships and rivalries they want to continue, so the many coaches have already figured it out before the announcements are even made.
But when Union Hill, just north of Gilmer, set out to make a schedule for the fall, they found the options quite limiting.
“It really tough to get anyone west of I-35 to come here,” says Bragdon, who is in his second year at the helm of the Bulldogs, who made it to the regional semifinals before falling to eventual Division 1 champion Blum. “I probably sent 100 e-mails out, trying to get games. With the team we had coming back, we wanted to make sure we had a competitive schedule.”
Unfortunately for Bragdon he didn’t get many takers.
“Several of the good teams in the east from last season lost a bunch of seniors,” Bragdon added, “but we were able to pick up a few with Blum, Saint Jo and Coolidge.”
The Bulldogs decided they would complete their schedule with quality private school teams.
Unfortunately, that plan came crashing down when TAPPS announced in mid-July that the organization would be delaying the start of their football season.
That sent Bragdon scrambling again.
“Week one was supposed to be against a good Bryan St. Joseph team at the Bryan Classic,” said Bragdon. “When that fell through in July, we got a game with Morton in Throckmorton scheduled.”
Then Morton called to cancel their game, so they went looking for yet another opponent.
“That’s how we ended up with Stephenville Faith,” explains Bragdon. “We went ahead and played in Throckmorton since we had the field reserved. We weren’t in school yet, so we took the kids to Possum Kingdom for the day before we went to Throckmorton.”
Six hundred miles and a win later, the Bulldogs were set to play defending state champion Blum in week two.
But early in the following week, Coach Bragdon wasn’t feeling well. He went to the school nurse who told him to take it easy. He also decided to get a COVID test. He was positive.
“I went into isolation, but we were going to have to cancel the Blum game,” stated Bragdon. “That was unfortunate, as we had hoped for that game to provide a good thermometer of where we were.”
With their coach in quarantine, the team continued to practice. Unfortunately, their week three opponent wasn’t convinced playing them would be the best thing to do.
“Coolidge hadn’t had any cases,” explained Bragdon, “and didn’t feel they should chance it. We totally respect their decision, but I wasn’t going to let our guys go two weeks without a game.”
Union Hill had heard that the Crowell-Richland Springs game, which was originally scheduled for Throckmorton on last Thursday, had been canceled due to field conditions.
He reached out to both teams, and ended up with a game at Crowell.
For the game, the Bulldogs left the school at 8:15 in the morning. They arrived in Crowell at 3:45 in the afternoon. After 45-ing the Wildcats, they were back on the bus by 9:00 pm and didn’t get back to campus until 2:45 Saturday morning.
“I am grateful my Superintendent is so supportive,” adds Bragdon. “He has given us the go ahead to do what we need to play.”
So, what does next week present?
A home game against Tyler King’s Academy. Of course, that game is a replacement for one that was already canceled. Then in week five, the Bulldogs get on the bus to make the trip to Evant (another 530 miles round trip) to face Medina. This game is also a replacement.
“I’ve told the kids to be ready,” explains Bragdon. “We don’t know what to expect. We’re prepared to drive to Marfa if we have to.”
Of course, not everyone has these sorts of scheduling problems. Out west, where six-man teams are prevalent, coaches can have more options.
Coaches for up-and-coming teams, like O’Donnell Coach Fernando Baeza and Westbrook’s Homer Matlock knew they wanted to challenge their teams and prepare them for a difficult district schedule. Fortunately for them, they are in the heart of six-man country and have filled their schedules with perennial playoff teams.
Teams like Rankin, Borden County and Sterling City are playing all-comers in preparation to run the gauntlet that the playoffs can be.
“Scheduling is especially tough at our level,” explains Borden County head coach Trey Richey. “It’s a two-year deal. One year a team may be good and the next they lost a player or two and aren’t. Playing a bunch of down teams doesn’t get you ready for Rankin and Balmorhea.”
To that end, Borden County has amassed one of the toughest schedules in six-man this season, playing Calvert, Rankin, Westbrook, Sterling City and Water Valley in the preseason. He also has the convenience of those schools all being within a two-hour drive for the most part. They met Calvert in Gordon, a three-hour drive away.
“We were even scheduled to play the top team in New Mexico (Elida, NM) this year until their season was postponed,” adds Richey. “This may cost you some losses, but I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about two things. First, for the kids’ sake, they need to see that speed early. Once you have that memory of what it looks like, you are more prepared. Secondly, as a coach, I’ve had years where we did not have to lot of third-and-long situations against good competition until late. It allows me to get better as a play-caller.”
Other coaches feel differently, like Jerry Burkhart, the nine-time state champion head coach of Richland Springs.
“I don’t like to play teams I might face in the playoffs,” explains Burkhart. “It’s tough enough to beat Vance Jones once in a season, I don’t want to give him two shots. Guys like Vance, Coach Richey, Mike Reed (Gordon) and Dewaine Lee (Strawn) are just so good. I just want to beat them that one time (in the playoffs).”
That presents problems for Richland Springs, as many teams, especially those in their area do not want to play the perennially top-5 Coyotes.
“We’ve started to rely heavily on the Christian schools,” added Burkhart.
With the TAPPS delay, this has created a few openings.
“It’s tough,” sighs Burkhart. “At our school, our kids are big into stock shows. So, when our schedule is made, we are set because they’ve already entered a show for the weekend.”
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