FREEPORT – Playing on turf is something that the Fulton Steamers are familiar with; not so much for the Aquin Bulldogs.
Speed has been an important part of the Bulldogs' unbeaten season, and pounding on turf helped them be a few steps quicker than the Steamers on big plays in a 55-38 win in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs.
Due to unplayable conditions at the Bulldogs' Conley Field, the game was moved a few blocks west on Empire Street to Freeport High School's Pretzel Bowl turf.
Junior quarterback Will Gustafson threw for three scores and rushed for another three, and caused plenty of fits for the Steamers (5-5). He threw for 219 yards, surpassing the 2,000-yard mark for the season, and rushed for another 116.
"We used that to our advantage," Gustafson said of the turf. "Our receivers ran good routes, and being on the turf, they got quicker. But, turf or no turf, we're going to play to win."
Fulton played its second straight game on the artificial surface after a loss to Newman last week. Its rushing game was bottled up, and averaged just 3.1 yards on 39 tries. So the Steamers took to the air, where junior quarterback Connor Barnett threw for 241 yards on 28 completions out of 36 tries.
Aquin got up 14-0 early; a 51-yard connection from Gustafson to Brennan Carlson set up a 1 yard score on a quarterback keeper, and Andrew Bowman hauled in a 27-yard catch for a score nearly 4 minutes later.
Ethan Rash responded with a 1-yard run with 53.4 left in the opening quarter, and a 2-point conversion by Kyler Pessman made it 14-8, but the Steamers never led or got closer that that 6-point deficit.
"We did enough offensively, but just couldn't stop them," Fulton coach Patrick Lower said. "It's not so much what we did or didn't do, they're just really good. We'd oversell and try to take something away, and they'd just go to something else."
Gustafson made it 21-8 after a 2-yard run with 9:53 left in the second quarter, and Aquin recovered an onside kick to put them in good field position. Ty Stykel capitalzed on that with a 1-yard TD run just 39 seconds after the previous score.
"We started off slow and didn't know how to capitalize on the pass game," Rash said. "Once we got going, I'm proud of every single one of our guys. We fought to the end. We fought, never gave up, and came back from three scores to the point where it was neck-and-neck. We just couldn't stop the pass."
Aquin led 35-16 at intermission, and each team scored three times in the second half. The Bulldogs led 49-38 with 6 minutes remaining, but the Steamers came up empty on a pair of late drives where they tried to get as many plans in with the clock working against them.
"They have a real good offensive team out there, and if we could have got a couple more stops it would have been a lot closer," Barnett said. "We played our hearts out, and they just had a couple of more plays than we did, and that's what it came down to."
Pessman was Barnett's primary passing target; he tallied 166 yards on 13 catches.
"No matter the circumstances, we just got to play hard and still got to go as hard as you can," Pessman said.
Stykel ended with 108 rushing yards and Carlson netted 152 recieving yards on five plays – his first three catches were for 51, 45 and 36 yards.
Aquin senior tackle Brady Carlisle had two tackles for loss, but would have liked to have given up fewer points.
"We're happy with the win, but we didn't win by as many as we'd like to," Carlisle said. "You're happy that you won, but are you really happy? That's the thing. You can always be better.
"Our offense played well, but on defense we just got to buckle down better when they pass. Stockton runs double wishbone, and so probably not as much passing, but we'll be ready for next week."
Fulton ends its season knowing that they had plenty of non-senior starters to perhaps make its future look bright.
"We have a lot to improve on, and we have a lot of players coming back," Rash said. "Our team is real junior heavy. We're losing a couple of key seniors that we're going to miss that are really good players for us."
Star of the game: Will Gustafson, Aquin, 19-for-116 rushing, 3 TDs; 10-for-12 passing, 219 yards, 3 TDs
Key performers: Connor Barnett, Fulton, 22-for-36 passing, 241 yards, 1 TD; Ty Stykel, Aquin, 21-for-108 rushing, 2 TDs; Kyler Pessman, Fulton, 13-for-166 receiving
Up next: Aquin at Stockton, time and date TBA