Johnny Bright Park – The Paul Kane Blues are back where they belong in the division two Miles conference final.
The Blues will compete for their third Miles’ banner in five years after prevailing 16-3 against the St. Albert High Skyhawks in the semifinals.
Friday’s kick-off between the 7-1 Blues and 8-0 Strathcona Lords is 5 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium. Tickets are $5 and it’s free admission for children 12 and under.
“It’s going to be fun playing in Commonwealth. It will be a good experience,” said Jake Strakowicz, a Grade 12 speedster who returned a punt from around the Paul Kane 50 for the opening touchdown 2:45 into the fourth edition of the Battle of St. Albert between the two teams after the Blues stopped the Skyhawks on their first possession.
It’s been a triumphant return to the Miles for the Blues after winning only one game last year in the division one Carr conference.
“We heard a lot of stuff at the start that we weren’t going to be the best team and that we’re going to be kind of in the middle of the pack but from the start we knew that we had great athletes and we had a great coaching staff with us,” Strakowicz said.
The Blues had also qualified for their fifth consecutive Tier II (750 to 1,249 students) provincial berth in the north semifinals.
“You earned it. You earned the trip to the city championship. You’ve earned the right to play in Commonwealth Stadium and you earned the right to go to provincials. I’m so proud of you guys,” head coach Rob Strecker told the Blues in the post-game huddle. “But we still have lots of work to do.”
The Lords (315 PF/76 PA) handed the Blues (260 PF/72 PA) their only loss, 23-16 in week two of the season.
The defending champions kicked a field goal in the last minute of the third quarter to go up 10-8 and padded the lead in the last quarter with two TDs to make it 23-8 with about one minute remaining.
The Blues closed the gap to a converted TD with 16 seconds to play but were unsuccessful with the onside kick.
A big and fast defensive line limited the Blues to 20 rushing yards on 11 carries and quarterback Connor Guy completed only 11 of 29 passes for 150 yards and two TDs and was picked off twice.
“We will see a very physical line and great DBs so we’ve just got to pick our routes and find the holes in their defence and our defence has got to contain and keep on our assignments and if we do that we should do OK,” said Strakowicz, a valuable slotback and defensive back.
The Blues put themselves in position to challenge the Lords after surviving a hard-fought defensive struggle against the Skyhawks (5-3, 240 PF/168 PA), the same team they beat in league play 43-30 after leading 36-14 at halftime.
“We just came out in the end with the W but we should’ve had more points up there. They’re a good team with great athletes but should’ve done better on our assignments,” Strakowicz said.
Once again, the Blues rose to the challenge defensively with another outstanding performance. The Blues have surrendered only 12 points, including one TD, while pitching two shutouts in five games after the Sept. 29 win against the Skyhawks.
In the second half, a bend but didn’t break defence stopped the Skyhawks in their tracks as a number of promising drives either ended with a turnover on downs or fizzled out despite some quality runs by Christian Pulis and pass completions by quarterback Ewan Vanderheide to a variety of players.
Several penalties against the Skyhawks on both sides of the ball also benefited the Blues.
Ethan Brandsma, a defensive pillar on the line, and Luke Eady on special teams were credited with fumble recoveries and Alex Gamble’s interception at the Paul Kane 23 with 56.7 seconds to play capped off the victory.
The Skyhawks got on the board with Koen Klinge’s 35-yard field goal with 3:44 to go in the third quarter and as the quarter ended the Grade 12 soccer player missed the uprights from 36 yards.
“Our team really pulled through in the end,” Strakowicz said.
The Blues tracked up 14 points in the opening 6:59 minutes and added two more on a safety with Klinge taking a knee in the endzone in punt formation with 8:31 left in the first half.
“We had a great first quarter but we kind of stayed with the lead when we should’ve kept building,” Strakowicz said. “We came out strong at the start and then we kind of started losing it. We lost our assignments on some runs.”
On the first punt return of the match, Strakowicz was stoked to go the distance.
“We had a couple of jokes at the outset that if I returned a punt or a kick that we would get some rewards so as soon as I seen the ball in the air I knew I had to get to the house. I wanted my rewards,” said the U17 Team Alberta player.
The first time on offence for the Blues, after the Skyhawks turned the ball over on downs at the Paul Kane 28 on a dropped pass on third and four, Guy ran to daylight on third and one for 74 yards and Brennan Dreger was on the receiving end of the two-point conversion.
Guy finished the game with 145 yards on nine runs and Dreger caught six passes for 60 yards.
Meanwhile, after the fourth metro Edmonton final in five years for the Blues – undefeated championship winners in 2013 and 2014 in the Miles and 2015 Carr finalists – the Tier II north semifinal kicks off Nov. 11 against the St. Joseph Celtics, last year’s Alberta Bowl runners up. Game time is 4 p.m. at Grande Prairie.
The Football Alberta rankings list the Celtics at No. 1 and the Blues, the second metro reps in the Tier II playdowns, are No. 6.
The Blues are 1-4 in provincials after losing 22-15 to the Lloydminster Barons’ in last year’s north semifinal to finish 1-7-1 overall.
“We’ll take it one game at a time. We’ll keep our mindset on the first one (against the Lords) until it’s done and then we’ll move to the next one,” said Strakowicz, 17.