Note: Union finished with a 5-6 overall record in 2012 and was fourth in Region 10 with a 2-3 record. It lost to Stansbury 60-26 in the 3A first round.
ROOSEVELT — In his first season as head coach at his alma mater last year, Union coach Matt Labrum unfortunately didn’t have the participation numbers he was hoping for, which made competing with the upper-echelon teams in 3A difficult.
The Cougars did fine against programs like Tooele, Ben Lomond and Uintah, but when the big boys like Stansbury and Juan Diego popped up on the schedule, they simply couldn’t compete.
A year later, things are looking up.
Not only will Union be competing in the smaller 3A this season, but the participation numbers are way up. Last season Union had about 50 to 60 kids in the program, whereas right now that number is closer to 85.
“I think kids are excited, saw some positive things happen last year, and they want to be part of a the building process and making something happen out here in Roosevelt,” said Labrum.
Union hasn’t had a winning record since 2007, when it went 9-4 and advanced to the 3A semifinals.
With roughly five returning starters on each side of the ball and a more balanced region, having a winning record and perhaps competing for a region championship aren’t unrealistic goals.
“The biggest thing for us is competing week in and week out. No matter what happens or who we’re playing, we’ve got to step up and play hard and start to set a tone and we’ve got to be known for something. I think we’ve got to be tough-nosed, and we’re heading in that direction,” said Labrum.
The year before Labrum took over as Union head coach, the program finished with an 0-10 record. Posting a 5-6 record last year is a clear indicator he’s got the program headed in the right direction.
To take that next step, Union needs to get better offensively. Union ranked 21st in scoring offense in 3A last year, averaging 17 points. Only Uintah, Canyon View, Tooele, Carbon and Ben Lomond were worse, and those teams combined for a 4-44 record.
Labrum’s switching to a run-and-shoot offense to facilitate improvement, but realistically experience alone should make the Cougars better.
Gavin Nielsen is back at running back after rushing for more than 900 yards last season, while Nic Smith is also back after leading the team with seven rushing TDs.
Only one offensive lineman is back this year, but Labrum said he has a strong group of juniors who will fill in the trenches nicely.
Offensively, one of the primarily things Labrum is focused on heading into the 2013 season is the passing game. Union ran the ball 80 percent of the time last year, but Labrum said it’s imperative that the team display more balance to keep teams from loading up the box.
That puts a little extra pressure on junior QB Tye Winterton, who knows what he’s getting into after starting the final four games last year because of injury.
“Tye Winterton had to step into a tough situation last year when our senior QB went down and broke his hand,” said Labrum. “He did a good job and gained some confidence and got some playing time and we expect him to take the next step.”
If everyone else takes that next step too, Union could challenge near the top of the 3A North region.
Union Cougars at a glance
Coach: Matt Labrum is entering his second year as head coach at Union and seventh overall. He previously coached at Parowan from 2007 to 2011. His overall record as head coach is 27-47. He’s a graduate of Union High.
(5 returning starters; Run and shoot)
A year after averaging only 17 ppg, Union is banking on quality skill position players to make the offense more efficient. Jordan Gurr is the lone returning offensive lineman, having started every game at center as a sophomore last year. Most of the rest of the offensive linemen will also be juniors, but Labrum said it’s a quality group. Workhorse back Gavin Nielsen is back after leading the team in rushing yards last season, while Nic Smith is also back after leading the way with a modest seven TDs. All of those scores came in the final five weeks of the season as Smith took on a larger role in the offense, and the coaching staff is expecting bigger things this fall. Billy Young and Landen Winn are projected starters at receiver expected to make improved contributions.
(5 returning starters)
Union ranked 16th in 3A in scoring defense last year, good enough to help the Cougars sneak into the playoffs as a No. 4 seed — but not nearly good enough to compete with Stansbury in the playoffs. Labrum is challenging his defense this year to find a way to force more turnovers and give the offense the ball in good spots. A lot of that responsibility will fall on returning defensive linemen Jordan Gurr and Paul Kaufusi. All four of Union’s linebackers will be new, but Smith could emerge as the leader of the group. The secondary be will young, but athletic.
Coaches preseason 3A North straw poll: Fourth
Deseret News 3A North prediction: Fifth
Bottom line: There’s no doubt the split of 3A helps the Union Cougars. They haven’t had a winning record since 2007, and it was always going to be difficult competing against the larger 3A teams. Now, however, Union can be a contender. It will still be an underdog against more traditional region foes like Morgan and Grantsville, but at the end of the day teams just want to compete, and Union can do that now.
Felt’s Facts for Union High School
All-time record: 239-317 (62 years)
Region championships: 11 (1951, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1971, 2000 co, 2005 co, 2007 co)
Playoff appearances: 29
All-time playoff record: 13-27
State championships: 2 (1965, 1993)
State championship record: 2-0
Most played rivalry: 72 meetings with Uintah dating back to 1951. Union leads 37-34-1. Meet on Sept. 6.
Felt’s Factoid(s): Jack Hannum directed Union to its first state championship in 1965 and became one of just eight coaches to win a state title with a perfect record (10-0) his first season. ... Cougar J.J. Morley is one of just 12 players to return a kickoff 99 yards in a state tournament game (2010 first round).
Union coaching history
2012-current — Matt Labrum (5-6)
2008-2011 — Sam Elliott (10-30)
2007 — Doug Bills (9-4)
2004-2006 — Phil Bertoch (15-14)
2001-2003 — Greg Hoagland (11-18)
2000 — Merlin Rasmussen (6-4)
1990-1999 — Don Busenbark (40-55)
1987-1989 — Paul Maggio (10-16)
1983-1986 — Lee Merrett (21-15)
1979-1982 — Jay Omer (13-23)
1978 — Jerry Dyer (4-5)
1976-1977 — Jay Omer (1-16)
1974-1975 — Alan Raddon (3-15)
1971-1973 — Hal Richardson (13-13-3)
1969-1970 — Gale Anderson (10-8)
1967-1968 — Unknown (11-7-2)
1965-1966 — Jack Hannum (16-3-2)Comment on this story
1963-1964 — Scott Edrington (2-14-1)
1962 — Bruce Parry (6-1-1)
1958-1961 — Kenneth Benson (5-25-2)
1956-1957 — Ted Heath (8-8-1)
1954-1955 — Sark Arslanian (11-4)
1951-1953 — Eldon Wright (9-13-2)
Deseret News First Team all-staters the past 10 years
2007 — Rhen Richard, QB
2007 — David Gilbert, WR
2007 — Casey Glines, WR
2005 — Chris Carter, OL
2004 — Jason Nelson, DB
To view second team and honorable mention all-staters through the years, check out the Deseret News All-State Archives.
Follow Deseret News prep editor James Edward on Twitter @DNewsPreps