Bulldogs the underdogs in Tier I north final

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Foote Field – “We can shock the province.”

That’s the inspirational message delivered by defensive coordinator Brayden Guy to the Bellerose Bulldogs, the long shots in the Tier I north final against the Harry Ainlay Titans, inside a crowded and amped-up change room following the first provincial victory in team history.

The Bulldogs will challenge Ainlay for a berth in the Alberta Bowl after overwhelming the Centennial Coyotes of Calgary 42-14 in the north semifinal.

Saturday’s kick-off is 1 p.m. at Clarke Stadium.

“We can upset Ainlay in the north final and if we do that it would shock everybody,” Travis Heggart, a Grade 11 Bulldog, said with conviction. “It will be tough. We definitely have to practice hard this week and we have to (man) up on defence.”

The Football Alberta Tier I (1,250-plus students) rankings list Ainlay (10-0) at No. 2 and the Bulldogs (7-3) at No. 5.

“They’re a tough team but we’re going to prepare and we’re going to try our best and go kick the crap out of them,” declared James Suranyi, a Grade 12 offensive guard. “We can definitely do it, we just need to make sure we get our practice in and don’t make any mistakes.”

In the metro Edmonton division one Carr conference, Ainlay imposed its will on the Bulldogs with lopsided results of 44-14 in league play and 48-14 in the final. The halftime scores were 24-0 in the first game and 34-7 in the rematch.

“Three times is the charm,” head coach Chad Hill told the Bulldogs in the post-game celebration. “We’ve got to give them a fight and give them something that they haven’t seen before.”

The Bulldogs are over the moon over the provincial breakthrough.

“It’s just magical. We finally got a win at provincials and there is nothing better than that,” said Suryani of Saturday’s milestone after losing last year’s provincial debut 38-6 to the Bev Facey Falcons. “It means a lot to us. You can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The winner plays the No. 1 St. Francis Browns (8-0) of Calgary, the defending champions, or the No. 4 LCI Rams (7-2) in the Alberta Bowl on Nov. 25 in Lacombe.

“Getting a win in provincials is not something that happens to too many teams every year, especially division one tier one provincials. That’s an accomplishment guys,” Hill stressed during his victory speech.

The Bulldogs shrugged off the adversity of losing Quade Kozak, the Haliburton Trophy winner as the MVP in the Carr, to a broken leg suffered in the third quarter of the 38-29 Carr semifinal win against the Salisbury Sabres, and backup QB Cordel Callioux, a strong two-way player at wideout and defensive back who was sidelined with a broken ankle in the second quarter of the final.

“We actually showed a lot of resolve, a lot of fight-back and a lot of mental toughness. There are not a lot of teams that can lose players like Quade and Cordel and keep fighting,” Hill said as the Bulldogs nodded their heads in unison. “We knew we were going to win this game and I felt you guys knew we were going to win this game and (heck) yeah, you came out here and we won the game. Well done, boys!”

After the Bulldogs erupted into thunderous applause, Hill added: “I want to say huge props to a junior quarterback who stepped in and did a great job,” in reference to Zach Froese, a Grade 10 junior Bulldog, who started his first senior game and completed touchdown passes to Nathan Brake and Heggart and ran for an 18-yard major.

Froese’s backup was Cory Hannam, a receiver on the senior team who hadn’t played a meaningful game at QB since peewee, when he was thrust into the final behind the centre when Callioux was injured.

“When Quade first got hurt I had no idea what was going to happen and then Cordel got hurt and then Cory came in and did really good for that situation and now we had Zach come up – he just did amazing,” said Heggart, a game-breaker at slotback and defensive end who scored the team’s sixth TD on a 13-yard fly play to close out the scoring with 7:06 to play and late in the game sacked the QB with such incredible force it moved the needle on the Richter scale.

This year’s mantra for the injury-plagued Bulldogs is Last Man Standing after last year’s ‘24 Strong’ motto personified the gritty 5-5 team.

“It just makes it harder with the injuries but at the end of the day you’ve always got to win it in the trenches and that’s what we did,” said Suranyi, 17, a Sturgeon Composite High School student.

The 2016 All-Edmonton Football Team selection in the Carr joined forces with Nolan Biesinger, Nick deChamplain, JP Parent and centre Parker LeLacheur on the O-line to protect Froese from the eighth-ranked Coyotes (3-7).

“The O-line was making me look good and we came out with the win,” Froese said. “Our O-line was blocking, they were really holding their blocks, and my running back (Ben VanLeeuwen) was making good blocks and good runs and the receivers were making me look good too.”

So, was Froese nervous as the dude at QB in the big game?

“It’s a thrill but you get nervous too because it’s a high level and you’ve played all year in junior but when it comes time to do your job you do it to the best of your ability and at the end of the day it’s football. Win or lose it’s just for fun,” said the Grade 10 student at Sturgeon.

Froese, 15, looked comfortable running the offence like a seasoned veteran.

“The plays are a little bit more developed at senior but with most of them I’ve run them in senior practices sometimes so I knew most of the plays.”

In the third quarter, and the Bulldogs leading 35-7, Froese was injured on a pass completion to Logan McCullough and was replaced by Hannam for a few plays.

“I just got winded and I fell on my elbow and my arm went numb,” said Froese, who was joined by about a dozen junior Bulldogs (5-2-1 as division one semifinalists) for provincials, including Jordan Howe starting at cornerback, Jakob Kikkert as a returner and on special team coverage and Zachary Roberts also got a few reps on the defensive line and punt coverage.

Karl Haasz, a defensive lineman, and the Phillips brothers, Kyle at receiver and Kolby at defensive back, are senior team Bulldogs who are among several Grade 10s contributing down the stretch.

Froese’s first TD strike for the senior Bulldogs was a 36-yarder to Brake to cap off a four-play 56-yard drive on the team’s second possession. Brake, slotted as the wideout on the right side, caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and followed his blocks in the race to the corner marker of the endzone.

The play before, a 14-yard catch and run by McCullough, was somewhat identical to Brake’s TD. The Bulldogs noticed on film the corners played off the receivers so they took advantage of Brake and McCullough’s speed with Froese connecting on the short throws.

The first quarter included a tackle by Heggart and company to stop the Coyotes at the Bellerose 33 on third and one.

The next TD was Heggart’s 52-yarder down the sideline on a great throw by Froese and an even greater catch by the Ginger Giant.

“I saw (the defender) bite down and I said, ‘I have to catch this ball’ and I went and got it,” Heggart said. “I saw an open lane and I just went into the endzone. It was a nice touchdown.”

The scoring play with 10 minutes left in the half was set up by another third-down stop as McCullough was credited with the tackle at the Bellerose 27 on the first play of the second quarter.

After the kick-off, the Coyotes put points on the board with a 13-yard TD run to complete a 73-yard drive.

The Bulldogs answered back on their next possession and the 67-yard match to the endzone included Froese’s quarterback plunge on third and one as a measurement determined the first down by the nose of the football, some nimble footwork by VanLeeuwen to escape a tackle for an 18-yard gain, a swing pass to McCullough for a 19-yard catch and run to the Centennial 20 and an 18-yard pass to the endzone as Heggart juggled the ball in the air while mugged by a defender. The Coyotes were flagged for pass interference and two plays later VanLeeuwen plowed over the goal line from the two with 1:52 remaining in the half.

After a two and out by the Coyotes, the Bulldogs huddled up at the Centennial 43 and on second down Heggart pulled off a 23-yard grab at the 18 and on first down Froese followed a convoy of blockers into the endzone with 49 seconds on the clock.

“I just ran where my blocks were,” Froese said. “Ben made that really good block for me and there was a big hole.”

VanLeeuwen’s conversion made it 28-7 and before the half ended sacked the QB from behind as Heggart forced the Coyote to scramble under intense pressure.

VanLeeuwen’s second TD was from the one on the first offensive series in the second half. A basket catch for 29 yards by McCullough in tight coverage while falling forward to squeeze the pigskin put the Bulldogs at the Centennial seven and VanLeeuwen scored on his third crack at the endzone.

Leading up to quarter time, the Bulldogs faked a punt and Brett Yost was picked off at the Bellerose 53 on a pass intended to Heggart.

Trailing 35-7, the Coyotes found the endzone on a 16-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Hard running by VanLeeuwen to the Centennial 13 for a 19-yard gain was followed by Heggart’s galloping TD run.

“We executed, we’ve got confidence in our offence and we’ll keeping rolling,” said Hill, the 2016 Carr coach of the year. “Defence, enjoys this. You bent but I think we can do better and we’ve got to do better next weekend on defence. We have to clean some stuff up.

“But man I’m proud of you guys. You showed a lot of fight and a lot of courage today.”

The Bulldogs will have Big Mo on their side for Ainlay after the emotion setback against the powerhouse Titans in the Carr final.

“It’s really great to bounce back from that loss and win a provincial game,” said Heggart, 16. “It’s amazing when you think about what we’ve done: the first Carr final and the first provincial win. It definitely feels good and we’re going to carry that good feeling into the north final.”

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Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.