Johnny Bright Park – It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog that symbolized the unwavering will to win by the Bellerose Bulldogs in Saturday’s football spectacle.
With the first provincial berth in team history hanging in the balance, the resilient Bulldogs roared back from a 15-point deficit to beat the Spruce Grove Panthers by 11 in convincing fashion in the metro Edmonton Tier I qualifier.
“We’ve been a ‘24 Strong’ roster all season and if we would’ve said we would be going to provincials nobody would’ve believe it so it’s a dream come true,” said quarterback Quade Kozak with satisfaction tattooed across his face.
“It’s very, very exciting.”
The 32-21 result ranks as arguably the most important victory in the history Bellerose football, surpassing the 2007 metro Miles conference championship (the first by the Bulldogs 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), the first victory over the Skyhawks in 2010 (when Paul Kane was still a feeder school for the St. Albert Catholic High School football program) and the first of four consecutive undefeated metro division one junior titles, starting in 2012.
“Holy (smokes), boys! For the first time Bellerose is in the provincials!” an enthusiastic head coach Chad Hill declared inside a cramped change room as the stoked Bulldogs erupted into a prolonged cheer.
After the colourful post-game pep talk, Hill’s voice was still quivering while summing up the remarkable achievement.
“I’m very proud of the small roster of players for working hard and dedicating themselves to achieve this goal,” Hill said of the ‘24 Strong’ lineup of Bellerose and Sturgeon high school players, featuring 14 Grade 12s – three on the starting offence against the Panthers and never more than four on the field for a snap – and seven starters on defence.
“I’m also appreciative of all the hard work from the staff, most notably coach O (Larry Olexiuk) who is battling through health issues but still breaks down game film and has scout packages prepared for our opponents.”
The Bulldogs savoured the moment with unabashed delight.
“It’s crazy. It’s awesome. There is so much hype in the room right now. The team is so excited. It’s so much fun,” said a pumped-up Travis Heggart, a stalwart two-way Grade 10 Bulldog.
Not even the harsh reality of playing against the powerhouse Bev Facey Falcons (9-0), the No. 1 Tier I (1,250-plus students) team in the Football Alberta rankings, in the north semifinals Saturday spoiled the party.
Kickoff is 2:30 p.m. at Foote Field.
In league play, the Carr conference division one opener was 45-1 for Facey over the Bulldogs (5-4), now ranked ninth in Tier I.
Facey is led by the dynamic Chuba Hubbard, a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The top football prospect in Canada committed to the Oklahoma State Cowboys prior to the season and last summer finished fourth in his age division in the 100 metres at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Colombia.
“We actually had a pretty good game against them,” Heggart said. “We’re just going to go out there and give it our all.”
The ‘24 Strong’ Bulldogs have embraced the underdog role with open arms.
“We’ve been fighting all year while low on guys. We just have to play like it’s our last game,” said Kozak.
The Grade 11 Sturgeon student was instrumental in the comeback charge while grinding out tough yardage to finish with 116 in total and three touchdowns against the Panthers (5-3-1), the same team that collared the Bulldogs 15-7 in league play.
“Every yard counts in this game, no matter if it’s one yard, 10 yards or 15 yards,” said the sturdy Kozak who refused to go down without a fight when advancing the ball with determination. “I give credit to my team. They helped me through this whole thing and I had great blocks by the O-line.”
The offensive line was centred by Nick Allen, a two-way Grade 12 Bulldog who also registered two sacks for five in his last two games at defensive end.
Left guard Josh McCullough didn’t start playing football until Grade 10 and spent the last two years with the junior Bulldogs. The other guard is Grade 12 James Suranyi, a backup on the senior team in Grade 10 as a newcomer to football and has been the team’s most physically dominating lineman for most of the season.
A pair of athletic tackles are Matt Coogan, a versatile Grade 11 who can line up at tight-end, defensive end and linebacker and plays on every special team, and Dylan McCoy, a Grade 10 who played for Zone 5 at the 2016 Alberta Summer Games.
“Offence, I know we’ve got some damn good receivers and a guy that can throw the ball, but what I’m most proud of guys is at the end. We needed to grind out hard yards and our young hoggies got that job done and we ran hard,” said Hill in his shout-out to the O-line after the win.
The defence “was lights out,” according to Kozak, as the Bulldogs tightened the screws on the Panthers after their third converted TD of the contest made it 21-6 with 5:20 remaining until halftime.
Chase LaRose led the Bulldogs in tackles with 11 while having the difficult task of covering the most dangerous receiver on the Panthers.
The Bulldogs opened the scoring with a long drive on their first possession, as Colton Meronyk turned the corner on the right side for the nine-yard major with 5:46 to play before quarter time. Ben VanLeeuwen’s convert attempt was blocked.
Meronyk had nine carries overall for 76 yards during an inspired performance by the Grade 12 Bulldog.
A few plays before the TD, a penalty wiped out Cordel Callioux’s four-yard TD catch.
A slew of penalties in stretches had coaches from both teams shaking their heads in disbelief.
The Bulldogs were flagged twice for contact on the kicker and the first infraction moved the ball up to the Panthers’ 51, which led to their third TD, a nine-yard catch and run.
The second infraction came with 7:57 remaining in the game and the Bulldogs down by two, as the Panthers huddle up at their 25 after the flag.
The defence dug in to force a two-and-out. After the punt, the Bulldogs marched the ball from the Panthers’ 50 and Kozak’s one-yard plunge capped off the go-ahead TD at 25-21 with 3:07 on the clock. Meronyk was stopped just short of the goal line on the two-point play.
Strong runs by Kozak, including a third and inches conversion to the four, and a 20-yard strike down the middle to Meronyk to the 15 highlighted the drive.
“The touchdown to take the lead was the key point in the game,” Kozak said.
After the kick-off, gripping tackles by LaRose and Heggart on successive plays forced the Panthers to punt and on the ensuing drive the Bulldogs went 47 yards with run-heavy play calling, culminating in Kozak’s seven-yard TD with 49.3 seconds to go and VanLeeuwen kicked the convert.
“You could tell the momentum was definitely shifting,” said Heggart, as the Bulldogs grabbed the game by the throat after a scoreless third quarter. “We had some good offensive reps and our defence started shutting them down and then from there we just kept annihilating them.”
Heggart’s second TD catch of his career with 56.2 seconds left in the first half and Ben VanLeeuwen’s convert closed the gap to 21-19. The six-foot-five slotback plucked the ball out of the air with a huge leap in the endzone after a scrambling Kozak barely got the throw away on second and goal at the 13.
“It was probably the hardest catch I’ve ever made. I remember going up and hoping the ball was in my hands and I was surprised I pulled it down,” said Heggart, 15, who had six receptions in the win for 55 yards.
Kozak completed 17 of 23 passes for 191 yards and Callioux was on the receiving end of four throws for 83 yards. A penalty also nullified a long first down reception by the Grade 11 Bulldog.
Callioux’s highlight-reel 41-yard sideline snag at the Panthers’ 28 in the second quarter set-up Kozak’s four-yard TD with 3:06 to go in the half to cut the lead to 21-12.
It was a clutch bounce-back score after the Panthers made it 21-6 and the Bulldogs looked like they were done like dinner.
“That was a low point in the game for us,” said Kozak, 16, of falling behind by 15 points “Our coach said we have to really pick it up if want to go to provincials and we did. We realized that we needed to do it for the Grade 12s because we didn’t want this to be their last game and our team just brought it to them.”