The Bellerose Bulldogs flipped the switch on a slow start for a fast finish in Friday’s turnaround victory in high school football.
The Bulldogs outscored the Spruce Grove Panthers 21-6 in the fourth quarter en route to the 42-27 decision in the division one Carr conference lid-lifter at Larry Olexiuk Field.
“We had to figure out what we were doing wrong and we fixed those things. We didn’t execute what we all wanted to but we executed to the point where we could get the lead and win,” said Quade Kozak, a standout Grade 12 quarterback who threw four touchdown passes and ran in a pair of scores.
The Bulldogs tied it at 14 apiece on Travis Heggart’s 22-yard TD reception and Ben VanLeeuwen’s convert with 2:04 left in the first half and with 4:18 remaining in the third quarter Matt Coogan took a swing pass 21 yards into the endzone and VanLeeuwen’s point-after attempt knotted the count at 21.
“I won’t praise our team for the second half or the whole game for being great or outstanding. I think we should blow these guys out by 30 points at least,” Kozak said. “But with that said we need to come together as a team, come together as an offence and as a defence and work just to become the team we were last year and not plateau at the start of the season. We have to keep rising and never quit.”
Head coach Chad Hill was satisfied with the result but not the team’s overall performance.
“We had some brain cramps at inopportune times,” said Hill in the post-game huddle while rattling off a long list of misdemeanors that included selfish penalties, missed assignments, poor execution at times and a defence prone to giving up bulging gaps. “We’ve got lot of work to do.
“But what I’m worried about here guys is that we’re not hungry enough. Last year was the first taste of provincials at Bellerose (after the birth of the St. Albert High Skyhawks ended the Bellerose-based St. Albert Storm program and the Bellerose football team was formed in 1998),” Hill added. “That should make you want it more and not get complacent and what I saw tonight was a bit of complacency and guys that think they’re good enough to show up.
“Every other team is probably every bit as athletic or even more athletic than we are so we have to be better football players and for too long tonight we weren’t better football players.
“I’m proud of you guys to fight hard and to get the win. To fight your way back that is positive but we’ve got to clean up some of the stuff that’s going to hurt us in the long run.”
The Bulldogs, listed sixth in the Football Alberta Tier I (1,250-plus students) rankings as the second of four metro Edmonton league Carr teams in the top 10, are coming off a 5-5 season (4-4 in Carr) that included an emotional come-from-behind 32-21 effort against the Panthers in the Tier I qualifier and the 38-6 loss in the provincial north semifinal to the Bev Facey Falcons, the defending Carr champions and Alberta Bowl finalists.
“There is a little bit of pressure on us but as a young team we need to work past that. Veterans need to step up and realize that we need to feed off this pressure and show people what we’re really about and that we’re not an immature young team that can’t complete a pass or whatever so I think the pressure helps us in becoming a better team,” Kozak said. “We have potential to compete in this Carr division and we have to work harder than we ever have. We can’t have days off. Every day in practice has to be game speed.
“Our chemistry is outstanding, we just need to gel and become more disciplined on defence and with our tackles.”
The Bulldogs scored on their first series as Kozak hit Nathan Brake in the far corner of the endzone for the 18-yard TD and VanLeeuwen kicked the conversion.
Miscues paved the way for two converted TDs by the Panthers – five-yard catch before the first quarter ended and a one-yard plunge in the opening minute of the second quarter.
Pass completions to Logan McCullough and Heggart after Coogan blocked a punt set-up Heggart’s TD.
Penalties off chippy play, plus a skittish offence and leaky defence, left the Bulldogs fit to be tied at halftime.
“We’ve got to work on our mistakes in the first half like sloppy tackles and dropping catchable balls. We just need to do the little things that help you win a game,” Kozak said.
The second half kicked off with a quick scoring drive by the Panthers, capped off by a three-yard run.
Back on offence, Kozak was picked off at the Panthers’ 40 and the ball was returned 14 yards but the visitors went two and out and punted.
On the next series, on second and 10 at the Bellerose 25, Kozak smartly turned a broken play off a bobbled snap into something special with a dump pass to VanLeeuwen and the bruising back rumbled through the defence for a huge gain but a penalty after yards gained put the ball back at the Panthers’ 35. Two plays later, Coogan scored as the Bulldogs pulled even.
The fourth quarter started with McCullough’s diving catch under the posts as Kozak threaded the needle and VanLeeuwen’s convert completed an 80-yard drive highlighted by two first-down runs by Kozak and Heggart’s catch and run to move the sticks.
Kozak’s 18-yard dash to the corner of the endzone and VanLeeuwen’s convert made it 35-21 with 3:57 to play.
Two key plays involving Kozak leading up to the TD included a first down on third and inches to the Bellerose 45 and then on a pass play escaped a sack and while scrambling around in the backfield spotted VanLeeuwen to put the ball at the 20.
On the ensuing kick-off, the Panthers went the distance for the 76-yard major but the two-point conversion was unsuccessful.
Late in the match, and the Panthers punting from their endzone, they were flagged for no yards and the Bulldogs huddled up at the 14. VanLeeuwen’s run to the five was followed by Kozak’s power play over the goal line with 47 seconds on the clock. VanLeeuwen split the uprights on the convert as the Bulldogs kicked off league play with a crucial win.
“It’s a stress reliever, definitely. It lets us know we can compete in this division,” Kozak said. “Give kudos to Spruce, they were really good. They fought really hard.
“We started off slow but we came back. We’re a team that fights and we don’t give up.”
Heggart was the leading tackler with six and Coogan and Cole Precht were credited with five each.
VanLeeuwen was the top receiver with three catches for 108 yards and McCullough had four grabs for 88 yards.
VanLeeuwen also rushed for 68 yards on 13 handoffs.
Kozak led the Bulldogs in rushing with 142 yards on 13 carries and finished with 282 passing yards while going 13-for 21.
Kozak, 17, the most valuable player on the championship-winning 2015 junior Bulldogs and last year’s senior squad, is the straw that stirs the drink on a team that is expected to qualify for the Carr semifinals and a berth in the Tier I playdowns.
“Pressure as an athlete, I take it as a compliment. I feed off pressure. It helps me with how I play football and how I will play football later on. Pressure all around helps me as an athlete so I take pressure as something positive and not something negative. When you take a negative that is where you start to fall off,” said Sturgeon Composite High School student.
Friday the Bulldogs tackle the Salisbury Sabres (1-0), ranked ninth in Tier I. Kickoff is 5:30 p.m. at Emerald Hills Park.