Clarke Stadium – The third time wasn’t the charm for the Bellerose Bulldogs.
The third setback to the undefeated Harry Ainlay Titans was Saturday’s 49-0 season ender in the Tier I north final.
“Everybody wants to win. We did our fair share of winning. Only two teams beat us all year. Those guys beat us three times. That’s a good football team. They’re the better football team. They deserve to go to the (Alberta Bowl) final,” Chad Hill, head coach of the 7-4 Bulldogs, told his emotionally drained players in the post-game wrap up.
Bellerose was the first St. Albert high school football team to reach the Tier I north final since the 2000 St. Albert High Skyhawks.
This year also marked the first metro Edmonton division one Carr conference final in Bellerose history and the first provincial win in the team’s second consecutive appearance in the Tier I playdowns.
The Bellerose football team was formed in 1998 following the breakup of the Bellerose-based St. Albert Storm and the establishment of the football program at St. Albert Catholic High School.
“The standards have been set this year,” Hill said. “We raised the bar last year a lot, of what a team can do. You don’t have to have 40 players like they do. Ideally you do but you don’t have to. Last year we had 24 players and we made provincials. This year as the numbers dwindled we didn’t have a whole lot more than that until the juniors got called up and not only did we make provincials we battled for a championship and then a north provincial championship,” Hill said.
The Bulldogs also used four quarterbacks in four games during the Carr playoffs and Tier I playdowns after Quade Kazak, the Haliburton Trophy winner as the MVP in the Carr, was injured in the third quarter of 38-29 semifinal win against the Salisbury Sabres on Oct. 27.
“It was a crazy season. We lost two quarterbacks (Kozak and Cordel Callioux to injuries) and we still fought our way into the final,” said Ben VanLeeuwen, a Grade 12 running back, linebacker and kicker after the final high school game of his career. “We’ve got the most resilient group of guys in the league. We worked our hearts out to get here and I don’t think you can say anyone works harder than us.”
The Bulldogs also huddled up in two exhibition wins during the longest and most successful season ever for the Bellerose senior team.
“A 13 game season is a long season (and) we battled hard. I don’t know if there is any player in the province that outnumbers some of our guys for minutes played and number of snaps played,” Hill said. “That’s a lot of minutes played. That’s a lot of snaps played. For our linemen that’s a lot of wear and tear on your bodies.
“You guys played your (butts) off. I’m proud of you guys.”
The odds were stacked against the Bulldogs in the north final after losses to Ainlay (11-0) of 44-14 in league play Sept. 22 and 48-14 in the Carr championship Nov. 3.
The Football Alberta top-10 rankings list Ainlay second and the Bulldogs fifth in Tier I (1,250-plus students).
With a trip to the provincial final at stake, Ainlay led by 28 points at halftime after the first quarter was scoreless.
“We came out battling but it’s hard to play with the amount of players we have. We’ve got lots of injuries and it was hard to do it. We had people playing where they haven’t played all year,” VanLeeuwen said. “We just couldn’t hold up any longer, I guess.”
After the opening kick-off, Ainlay marched the ball from midfield and on second and goal from the eight a leaping VanLeeuwen deflected a pass for Travis Heggart to pick off in the endzone and the ball was returned to the Bellerose 16 with 4:01 gone in the contest.
The next possession for Ainlay ended with Logan McCullough breaking up a pass in the endzone on third down after Brett Yost and company sacked the quarterback for loss at the Bellerose 30.
The third offensive series for the Bulldogs showed promise as Heggart, McCullough and Nathan Brake hauled in passes from Zach Froese, a Grade 10 junior quarterback who started the convincing 42-14 decision against the No. 8 Centennial Coyotes (3-7) of Calgary in the Nov. 11 north semifinal.
However, on the first play of the second quarter and the Bulldogs facing second and one at the Ainlay 32, Froese threw a pick-six but a penalty to Ainlay nullified the touchdown. The next play, on first down at its 37, Ainlay found the endzone with a 73-yard catch and run.
Ainlay’s second TD, a 32-yard TD strike and two-point conversion reception, was set up by a diving catch in front of the midfield strip for 26 yards.
Ainlay’s second pick of the half, a one-on-one battle between the defender and receiver for the ball and McCullough the intended target, resulted in the third TD as the Titans needed three plays to score from the Bellerose 48. The eight-yard major came with 2:02 left until halftime.
With 1:11 to go, and Ainlay at its 19 after deep punt by VanLeeuwen, the Titans put two big plays together and the second was a 61-yard TD with 43 seconds remaining.
At halftime, a fire and brimstone pep talk inside the Bellerose change room could be heard though several cement walls while waiting in line for coffee at the concession stand.
“We really should’ve fought them instead of ourselves,” said McCullough of the first half, which included a rare appearance behind the centre for a few snaps by the Grade 12 wideout and defensive back and the Bulldogs trailing by 21. “We kept fighting and our team was pulling strong together and then there were a lot of penalties. We needed to be more disciplined, I guess.”
The second half was basically played with running time after Ainlay recovered a blocked punt at the Bellerose 13 and quickly cashed in the turnover with a five-yard TD with 2:16 gone in the third quarter and the rout was on.
The first play in the fourth quarter was a 60-yard TD by Ainlay to close out the scoring.
As the game wound down, Darryl Marsh disrupted a pass in the endzone and in the last minute Froese was picked off on the final play of the season for the Bulldogs.
“I’m upset. It’s a bitter pill to swallow but they were the better team out there today, especially with the lack of bodies we had but we still fought and I’m proud of the team for going out fighting for each other. We never laid down,” said McCullough while contemplating his last football game as a Bulldog. “It was a fantastic season. I couldn’t have asked for a better team. I love everybody in this room. They played so hard. They played their hearts out all season and with the injuries and everything we never let down. We tried and we fought. I love them. They’re a great group of guys. I’m never going to forget them.”
Hill’s message inside the sombre change room was to savour a season to remember.
“We all feel like (crap) right now because our season is over but on Wednesday (at the team’s banquet) let’s get together and celebrate the season that was because wishing things ended differently doesn’t do it guys. We could wish for a lot of things but it doesn’t make it happen,” Hill said. “It’s not a storybook ending, it’s a real life ending.
“I hope you guys learn from this and I hope you take pride in what you accomplished. I love you guys. It’s been a fun season and in all honestly guys, as pure coaching goes, I don’t know if I’ve ever had more of an enjoyable season.
“You guys are a helluva group. I will remember this group.”