ROCK FALLS – Cory Bielema knew the pressure of coaching two state championship football teams at Morrison.
On Friday night, Bielema faced a different kind of pressure – of guiding his alma mater to victory in his first game representing his school in a quarter of a century.
Bielema, a 1990 Sterling High School graduate, provided a steady hand and the occasional spectacular play at quarterback in leading the Golden Warriors to a 36-30 victory against Rock Falls in an Alumni Football USA contest Friday night at Hinders Field.
“I wanted to get out there, have some fun, and see what I could do,” said Bielema, who did not play in a loss to the Rockets last summer. “It was a wonderful experience. I was quite nervous in pregame, probably moreso than our Champaign trips when I was coaching. I had some butterflies out there.”
Bielema had touchdown passes of 4 and 28 yards to Anthony Adamson, as well as a 35-yarder to Louis Lorenzy. He also scampered 17 yards for another score.
Tyler Garcia scored the first TD for Sterling with a 4-yard run in the first quarter. The nail in the coffin was provided by Codtey Albright, whose 47-yard, zig-zagging TD run gave the Golden Warriors a 36-24 lead with 3 minutes, 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Sterling needed that cushion to fend off a spirited comeback attempt by Rock Falls, which found itself trailing 18-0 with 1:34 left before halftime. That’s when the elusive Robbie Minor went to work.
Minor, a 2003 Rock Falls graduate who once played professional baseball in the Yankees farm system, needed just two plays to get the Rockets on the board before halftime. He hooked up with Tim Jacobs for a 59-yard gain to put Rock Falls in business at the Sterling 5.
From there, Minor tossed a TD pass to Donnie Cole to get the Rockets on the board. A Minor 2-point conversion run made the score 18-8 going into halftime.
Minor and Gerald Sharp, a 1994 Rock Falls grad, alternated series in the first half, but Minor got the bulk of the snaps in the second half. Rock Falls tied the game at 18-18 on a short Minor run and 2-point conversion run midway through the third quarter, but Sterling regained control on Bielema TD passes to Lorenzy and Adamson.
A possible game-clinching interception slipped through the fingers of Sterling defender D.J. Olalde with 4:37 to play, and Minor made the Warriors pay by hooking up with Corey Warren on a TD pass to slice the lead to 30-24 with 4:30 remaining.
The Rockets really made things interesting by converting an onside kick with 4:24 to go. A drive that started from midfield went nowhere, however, as Minor missed on four consecutive passes.
Two plays later, Albright broke loose for a long TD run to give Sterling a two-score cushion.
Rock Falls concluded the scoring on a fourth down plunge by Margarito Ibarra with 1:30 to play, but Sterling’s Garcia recovered an onside kick attempt to extinguish the final Rocket hopes.
Minor completed 16 passes to eight different receivers in the second half, and gained 221 yards through the air. He caught Bielema’s attention.
“Robbie did great,” Bielema said. “They had a lot of great receivers, and in Coach [Scott] Berge’s offense, that’s tailor-made for a quarterback like Robbie.”
For Minor, the loss mattered little, when looking at the big picture.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot the first half,” Minor said. “We couldn’t get anything going, but we came around in the second half. We had a blast out there. Win or lose, we were going to have fun. If you talk to any guy in the locker room, we had a blast.”
Minor and Bielema were voted offensive MVPs, while Sterling’s Rashaad Lane and Rock Falls’ Emilio Ibarra earned top defensive honors. Lane had a pair of interceptions.
Sterling earned the right to play another alumni game with the victory. It will travel to Dixon on July 18.
Star of the game: Cory Bielema (S), 3 TD passes, 1 rushing TD
Key performers: Robbie Minor (RF), 300 yards passing, 2 TD passes; Tim Jacobs (RF), 8 catches, 192 yards; Rashaad Lane (S), 2 interceptions
Up next: Sterling at Dixon, 7 p.m. July 18