Niles rolls to easy 55-0 win over St. Joseph in opener

Published 7:34 pm Saturday, August 26, 2023

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NILES — The Niles football team had to wait nearly a year to play on its new turf surface. It was worth the wait.

Paul Hess and Sam Rucker each scored three touchdowns as the Vikings rolled to an easy 55-0 victory over former SMAC foe St. Joseph Friday night.

The win snapped a five-game losing streak against the Bears. It was the first time since 2019 that Niles and St. Joseph met on the gridiron.

The Bears’ loss is the worst since Elkhart Central (Indiana) defeated St. Joseph 54-0 in 1952. The Bears lost by 53 points (53-0) to Holland in 1950, and Niles defeated St. Joseph 47-0 in 2017.

“At no point did I ever think 55-0,” Niles Coach Scot Shaw said. “But I thought if we executed well and we played well, we could get off with a win. They [St. Joseph] were kind of an unknown. None of those kids played last year when they were good. They came in with a lot of them. They tried the no-huddle, so they tried some things to hide some inexperience and things like that, but I think our kids came out of the gate strong and kept going.

After the opening quarter, there was little doubt about who would win the season opener.

Niles rolled out to a 22-0 lead as Hess scored on a 2-yard run with 8:53 to play in the first quarter, Rucker scored on a 66-yard run with six minutes left, and Julian Means-Flewellen scored on a 9-yard run with 2:26 to go.

Andrew Cutajar connected on two of the three extra-point kicks, while Alex Cole had to round up a bad snap on the third extra-point attempt and scored the 2-point conversion.

If any hope was left on the St. Joseph sidelines at the start of the second quarter, Hess stuck a dagger through its heart with a 5-yard run that made it 29-0 just 59 seconds into the period.

Niles would go on to score three more touchdowns before halftime as its advantage grew to 49-0.

Peyton Gordon got into the scoring action with an 11-yard run before Hess completed the hat trick with a 3-yard run, and Rucker scored his second touchdown of the night on a 35-yard run.

Rucker capped the scoring with his third touchdown, another 35-yard run, with 10:08 remaining in the contest.

Most of the second half was played with a running clock.

The Vikings (1-0) dominated every phase of the game. Niles had 393 yards rushing and finished the night with 422 yards of total offense. Talon Brawley threw just one pass, which was good for 29 yards to Brenden Olsen.

Rucker led the ground game with 166 yards on six carries. Hess added 79 yards and Means-Flewellen 64 yards. Niles averaged 9.4 yards per rushing attempt.

Dylan Chapman had 73 yards on 25 carries for the Bears. Two St. Joseph quarterbacks combined to go 7-of-13 for 34 yards.

Defensively, the Vikings allowed the Bears just 154 yards of total offense, of which 120 came on the ground. St. Joseph turned the ball over three times on fumbles, two of which were recovered by Rucker. Niles scored 15 points off of Bears’ miscues.

Hess and Means-Flewellen led the Vikings with six tackles, while Logan Olsen, Rucker and Cole all had five tackles.

Shaw said that his team’s goal heading into the season opener is to pick up where they left off at the conclusion of 2022. Niles finished the year 5-1 after starting last season 1-4.

“We said all winter long that we want to start this year where we ended last year,” he said. “We don’t want to start all over again. We were playing pretty well at the end of the year, so we wanted to start at that spot. I think we did that.”

Niles will try to exercise another demon Thursday night when it travels to Stevensville to take on Lakeshore. The Lancers have won the last 17 meetings between the two schools. Niles’ last win was a 20-6 victory in 2003.