Winchester West Central’s big plays leave Unity-Payson feeling ‘gassed’ in opening loss


MENDON, Ill. — The big plays were a big deal.

The Winchester West Central football team was able to ride the momentum of some big-play scores Friday night — and take advantage of a “gassed” Unity-Payson team — to hand the Mustangs a 28-15 loss before an opening-night crowd of about 550.

West Central’s Conner Turner returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, which set the tone for the rest of the Western Illinois Valley Conference interdivisional meeting. Unity is a member of the WIVC North, while West Central resides in the WIVC South.

West Central also received exclamation-point scores from Chance Little’s 74-yard interception return, another touchdown from Turner via a 39-yard rush and a 3-yard burst from Mason Berry that was set up by a Turner interception return.

West Central, which had lost the past two years to Unity, trailed only briefly in the second quarter. The Cougars otherwise controlled the momentum much of the game, especially in the second half.

Despite having only 25 players dressed for the game in sweltering conditions, the Cougars won the yardage battle (249-134) but had trouble mounting any consistency.

“We don’t have a lot of quantity, but I feel we have quality,” West Central coach Matt Coultas said of his roster.

Coultas felt Turner’s return of the opening kickoff for a score not only gave his club some early breathing room, but allowed its offense time to find what night work against a Unity team that is looking for a third straight postseason berth.

“That opening play was big for us, but after that it took us a while to get going,” Coultas said.

West Central’s only other first-half score came on Little’s interception return just before halftime. The touchdown gave the Cougars a 14-8 lead at intermission.

West Central’s final two scores came in the third period and allowed its lead to swell to 28-8 against a Unity team that was struggling — in more ways than one — to stay within reach.

“I think we’ll be working on conditioning next week,” Unity senior wide receiver Cody Shaffer said. “We were gassed at times in the second half and West Central wasn’t. This was a tough way to start the season, but we didn’t bow our heads. We kept fighting.”

Shaffer was one the bright spots for Unity, catching a 9-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and a 14-yard score in the fourth quarter. Both touchdown passes came from sophomore quarterback Sawyer Allen, who ended with a 12-for-25 night, good for 149 yards. Shaffer finished with seven receptions for 96 yards.

Not unexpectedly, Unity coach Matt Woodworth pointed to West Central’s big plays as the difference.

“I thought we played well defensively, but we gave up some big ones … and we struggled all night to get on track offensively,” Woodworth said. “We got down 28-8, but didn’t give up. We kept battling.

“I think we found out we need better conditioning, plus West Central found some weak spots we didn’t know we had.”

Woodworth emphasized all is not lost. It’s only August.

“There’s a lot of season left and we can’t dwell on this loss,” he said. “Everyone wants to win the first game, but only half of the teams can.”

Unity plays at Greenfield-Northwestern next Friday in another WIVC interdivisional matchup. 

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