Clarke Park – The beginning of the end for the Bellerose Bulldogs in Friday’s playoff came when the Salisbury Sabres ran back the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
The Sabres would go on to beat the Bulldogs in a 42-12 romp in metro Edmonton high school football.
“That’s not the way you want to start a big game,” said a red-eyed Chad Hill, head coach of the Bulldogs, while standing outside a dressing room flooded with tears after the Carr conference semifinal. “The score is not flattering. That’s a tough team we played against but I’ve got to give the guys credit for toughening it out. They really battled.”
The Sabres rattled the Bulldogs for leads of 21-6 at halftime and 28-12 after three quarters.
“For most of the first half we were right in there playing a hard-fought game. It was back and forth, a very even game, and then the wheels started to come off in the dying minutes of the half,” Hill said.
After scoring the opening TD, the Sabres recovered their chip shot on the kick off and huddled up at the Bellerose 36. Hill had seen enough and called a timeout 19 seconds into the game.
“We tried to get it together,” Hill said. “After the timeout we settled down and the defence held.”
The Sabres failed to get a first down, with a pass falling incomplete on third and seven.
On their next two possessions the Sabres missed on field goals from 33 and 29 yards. The first attempt ended a drive from the Salisbury 25 and the second try was after a two-and-out following a questionable no-yards flag against the Bulldogs that put the Sabres at the Bellerose 20.
Early in the second quarter, defensive stalwart Cody Andresen left the game with a lower body injury. The Grade 12 linebacker and the Bulldogs’ second-leading leading tackler (25) behind Kieran Fraser (conference-leading 32) in league play battled through the whole year with a knee injury. He was held out of practice after Tuesday’s 35-13 playoff win over the Archbishop Jordan Scots.
“There have been times in practice Cody hasn’t been able to go. Some games he was questionable health-wise. He gave everything he had and it just locked up on him,” Hill said. “We had lots of walking wounded tonight that gave their hearts on that field. When you’re a team that is not 45 bodies deep, it takes its toll but the guys played until some of them couldn’t play no more. That’s why I think the world of the boys and how they fought courageously and gave it everything they could give.”
The biggest break of the game for Bellerose was a blocked punt by Dan Petty in the second quarter. With Salisbury punting from their 46, the six-foot-three and 248-pound Bulldog roared through the line and got an arm on the ball. It bounced around the field until Ben Graunke fell on it at the Salisbury 30. Two plays later, a 17-yard strike by quarterback Ryan Ozunko to Adam Anderson generated a first down at the 13. On third down from the 10, Ozunko threatened to throw while scrambling around the backfield and then took off with the ball. At the goal line he banged his way past a couple of Sabres and entered the end zone with 5:33 left until halftime. Anderson’s point after was no good.
“Holding them to that lone touchdown at the beginning and then scoring on them was a big thing for us. It really got us going,” said Petty, a Grade 12 standout at guard and defensive tackle.
The Sabres replied on their next series with three big first-down runs before completing the 80-yard drive with a TD from the 27.
After forcing the Bulldogs to go two-and-out after the kickoff, the Sabres quickly marched from the Bellerose 50 and scored from the 28 with 64 seconds to go.
The second half started with a two-and-out by Bellerose. After a 62-yard punt by Tayler White to the Salisbury 26, the Sabres racked up the yards en route to another TD. The key play was a 33-yard reception at the Bellerose 12. On second down at the seven, the Sabres pulled off a TD catch in the end zone.
The Bulldogs answered back after the kickoff. On first down from the Bellerose 30, Ozunko hit a streaking White down the sideline with 5:09 left in the quarter.
The momentum from the scintillating TD swung over to the defence for a two-and-out, but on the Salisbury punt the Bulldogs were flagged for offside and the Sabres gained a first down at the Bellerose 43. On third and three Anderson was flagged for pass interference on a play that was too close to call and the ball was moved to the 10. On the first play of the fourth quarter the Sabres scored from the three and the convert put them ahead by 23.
With 8:19 remaining, a fumble recovery by Petty snuffed out a potential scoring drive. Petty caught the ball in the air after the Salisbury runner had it punched out by a hit, and the big Dawg rumbled 11 yards to the Bellerose 52. However, the Bulldogs were unable to cash in the turnover.
A 13-yard TD catch rounded out the scoring for Salisbury with 1:53 left in the Bulldogs’ season. It also marked the last high school football game for more than half of the Bulldogs on the 36-player roster.
“We have a lot of Dawgs in Grade 12. It’s their last year and it’s really hard right now for all of us,” Petty said with a stiff upper lip. “We may not be the best and the most skilled people in the world but we all played really good. We showed that Bellerose isn’t a pushover.”
After a lengthy closed door session following the loss, Hill summed up his post-game address to the emotionally-spent Bulldogs.
I told the boys to celebrate the season and not dwell on tonight, he said. I still remember my last game of high school football [with the 1996 St. Albert Storm]and I know its tough. Its easy to get caught up in the moment. Sure were disappointed. We were a win short of our goal to win the championship. It hurts but we all need to focus on what we did accomplish because weve done things this year that havent been done before.
The Bulldogs decided to tackle the big boys in Carr after going 2-5 in 2008 and 6-2-1 last year in the Miles conference.
“We built a Miles team into a high Carr team,” said Petty, a first-year football player from Sturgeon Composite High School. “We had a lot of guys with size and physical talent, but we built the skill up and we got all their heads into it. We really worked the mental aspect of the game.”
The Bulldogs finished third in league play after a 30-0 loss to Salisbury in the last game before the playoffs scuttled their bid for second spot and a first-round playoff bye.
“We dug our own graves by not handling the business with Sal the first time around and we knew then that it was going to be tough,” Hill said.
The Sabres (5-1 league; 6-2 overall) are ranked seventh provincially in tier I (school population 1,250-plus).
“We definitely played a better game against them tonight. The guys really had their head into it more,” said Petty, 17.
This year’s Bulldogs will be remembered for not finishing 3-3-1 as Carr semifinalists, but for beating the rival St. Albert High Skyhawks 7-0 for the first time in the Battle of St. Albert after seven losses.
“We didn’t want it to be the highlight but I’m thinking it will be,” Petty said. “In no way were we planning on our season ending with St. Albert High. We wanted to go the distance and we weren’t going to end it there. If anything we kicked it up a gear. It really was a big turning point for us.”