August 29, 2001 11:00 pm

By C.J. Gish

Observer Staff Writer

UNION After two seasons of being on the bubble, the window of opportunity is still wide open for Union.

Two straight 6-3 seasons and 5-2 third-place finishes in the Wapiti League have been nice, but not good enough to get into the state playoffs for the Bobcat football team.

Now Wayne Herron, in his 14th season as Unions head coach, believes his teams time has come.

Our main goal is to improve. Weve been (at third place) for two years, so its at the back of everybodys mind to work at finishing higher than third, Herron said.

The kids understand that were close, but close doesnt cut it.

Only the top two teams from the states eight Class 2A districts advance to the state playoffs. The last time Union made it was in 1986.

Returning are all-league senior running backs Shae Prince (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) and C.W. Dunbar (5-7, 150). Prince led Union with 509 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns last season. Dunbar was second in rushing with 437 yards. He added five touchdowns.

Senior Lucas Maples (5-7, 155), who saw time in the backfield, will be moved to quarterback. Maples was the teams backup there last year.

Junior Tim McReynolds (5-8, 140) will back up Maples.

We have two solid kids at quarterback, Herron said.

Junior Derek Kirby (5-8, 200) moves from guard to fullback.

Prince has been our starting fullback the past three years, but hes moving to tailback. Derek is a hard runner, Herron said.

The wide receiver spots should be strong, too, with senior Mike Maley (5-9, 165) moving over from running back. He will be joined by junior Jeremy Shankel (6-3, 175), who will fill the void left by all-league end Konrad Bomberger.

Seniors Morgan OConnor (6-0, 160) and A.T. Warren (5-5, 140) will also see time at wide receiver.

The line is where Union was hit the hardest by graduation. All but one of the Bobcats five starting offensive linemen, including two all-leaguers, are gone.

Although we graduated a lot of starting offensive linemen, we have some seniors that were behind that group, Herron said. Theyve been in the program and I feel theyll be ready.

Senior Ace Clark (6-3, 175) is the lone returner. Hell be joined by seniors Ken McCord (5-7, 160), Nick Stutzman (5-10, 220) and Sam Goodman (6-0, 150), along with junior Corey Aldrich (5-8, 195) and sophomore Matt Fiorito (5-11, 230).

Goodman is moving from running back to guard, Clark is a guard, McCord is a center/guard, Stutzman is at tackle, Fiorito a center/tackle and Aldrich is a center.

Sophomore Brian Kausler (6-1, 165) will provide depth at guard and tackle.

The offense will continue to run the option out of several different formations. Just how we have in the past, Herron said.

Defensively, Maples, a first-team all-league defensive back, will anchor a secondary that includes Dunbar, McReynolds, Shankel and free safety Maley.

Prince and Kirby are the inside linebackers, and the defensive ends are senior Josh Gillespie (5-8, 145) and junior John Dodds (5-6, 140).

The defensive line of Clark, Aldrich, McCord and Goodman, will include La Grande junior transfer Brandon Sweet (6-2, 200).

Well mainly run a 4-3, which is our base defense, but that may change, Herron said. We may run some odd-man fronts.

With this group, Union may advance to its first playoffs under Herron.

Herron gives the nod to Nyssa for one playoff spot. The Bulldogs have advanced to state as one of the top two teams every year since they moved into the Wapiti in 1994.

From there, its wide open. That (other spot) is there for the taking, he said.

Union opens its season Friday when it hosts Weston-McEwen.