Blog: First road trip of the season a good test for Mules (09/24/21)
The trailer pulled out of Tom Hoover Way just before 11 a.m. Friday, heading for Columbia.
The Mules football team was due to start in eight hours against Battle in that town. Everyone loaded up on a charter bus, a small school bus and a few vans for the trip.
They stopped at an oasis called Marquette High School on the edge of Clarkson Valley for food, water, and a walk. The players were able to stretch their legs and use the restroom.
Dave Porter, who coached at Poplar Bluff in the 1980s, was there to greet the coaching staff as well as Marquette’s coach and athletic director.
With everyone on the bus, the trailer pulled out and headed for Columbia and a date with the Spartans.
Why, you might ask, does the soccer team travel halfway across the state to play this game and this opponent?
It is a complex question with a lot of factors.
Bottom line – that’s the best thing for this team right now.
“I keep telling kids, win, lose or draw, these are the kinds of games we have to play,” Mules coach David Sievers said earlier in the week.
Sievers and sporting director Kent Keith must find five opponents to fill the football calendar each year since Poplar Bluff only has four conference opponents. Some years can be easy, others more difficult.
Due to Poplar Bluff’s size, the Mules are not an attractive opponent for small schools in Southeast Missouri. In the 1970s, Poplar Bluff was playing Dexter, Charleston, Kennett and Perryville and only had to make trips to Springfield or St. Louis to fill two weeks.
Kennett added Poplar Bluff last year for the first time since 1995, but outside of rivals SEMO North, the longest streak with an opponent has been Hillsboro since 2014 (minus last year’s COVID-19 cancellation ).
Since 1920, the Mules have faced 90 different opponents from Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Some, like Bloomfield and Puxico, no longer play football. The Mules once drove four hours to play a neutral site match against a team that made a 3.5 hour trip.
All Poplar Bluff teams face long journeys – the football team was in Rolla on Friday and the softball team will be in Columbia next week.
Friday was the soccer team’s first trip to Columbia since 2001, when the Mules played across town in Hickman.
Over the past five years, the Mules have faced 16 different opponents from Agape Boarding School, MICDS, Sumner, Riverview Gardens, Ritenour, Chaminade, St. Charles, DeSoto and now Battle.
It doesn’t help Poplar Bluff that many similarly sized schools in and around St. Louis, where they can schedule a short drive through town to play instead of driving down Hwy 67.
Growing up in St. Louis, Poplar Bluff seemed like halfway around the world, or at least on the Arkansas border, when the holidays took us to Lake Wappapello.
Like my parents with a promise of extra candy for the car ride, Poplar Bluff can sweeten the deal for schools to come and play at Mules Stadium. Battle, for example, helps offset travel and other expenses for Friday’s trip.
Battle also gives the Mules a sort of test, as both teams will be able to see where they are midway through the regular season. The Spartans have reached the state playoffs in six of the past seven seasons and have been considered among the top teams in Class 5.
It would be better for the MSHSAA to publish class and district homework earlier, or better yet, take care of the scheduling by forcing teams from the same district to play to help seed the playoffs better.
Poplar Bluff and Jackson have met twice in a season in three of the past four years, but only see Seckman, Oakville, Mehlville and Fox in the district playoffs.
Alas, the MSHSAA is a lot like the NCAA in that it only cares about how the playoffs are handled and not how anyone does it. So while college football traditions hold back playoff expansion but offer Missouri fans to Boston College, high schools like Poplar Bluff have to travel halfway across the state to play a regular-season game.
Again, players were excited about the charter bus.