Commonwealth Stadium – For the first time this season, the Sturgeon Spirits looked like a first-year football team.
“We had the wrong night to not play our best,” said head coach Chad Hill, summing up the 31-2 loss to the Ardrossan Bisons in the division three Gilfillan conference final in the metro Edmonton league last Thursday. “Turnovers, some drop balls, some missed assignments and missed throws. It’s really uncharacteristic what we’ve done all year.”
Leading 7-2 at halftime, the Bisons pulled away with 24 points off four Sturgeon turnovers.
A pick-six with 2:25 to play made it a runaway at 24-2 and on the next offensive series for Sturgeon an interception on first down led to Keon Nurse’s second touchdown of the night, a 26-yard effort with 1:50 to go.
“We couldn’t really connect on anything. We were off today,” said Grade 11 quarterback Zach Froese, who was picked off four times after throwing only two interceptions in five regular-season games as the Gilfillan conference MVP. “I take personal blame for the loss with my lack of throwing.”
Hill stressed it wasn’t Froese’s fault that Sturgeon didn’t play to its potential.
“Zach took it hard. He was apologizing and there are no apologies needed in football. Nobody ever sets out to lose a championship game,” Hill said. “We knew they would send a lot of pressure, a lot of heat, and unfortunately we couldn’t make them pay for that so I give credit to them. If we would’ve executed and done some things differently, they would have to call off some of their pressure. We didn’t force them to do that though, so they were able to keep pressure on us all game.
“We also struggled a little bit in the trenches today,” Hill added. “This is probably the one (Gilfillan) team that has a really strong line on offence and defence, not a bunch of big guys but they’re strong, they’re talented, they execute very well and they’re well coached.”
The second of two losses to the Bisons was tough for Sturgeon to swallow in the biggest game of the year.
“It sucks for sure. It’s not fun,” said Zach Roberts, a Grade 12 defensive end/offensive tackle. “But next year we’ll do even better. We should be able to beat Ardrossan.”
Sturgeon, the eighth-ranked Tier III (450 to 749 students) team in the province, rattled off five wins in a row after letting the season-opener slip away in the 33-28 loss to the Bisons (7-0), ranked third in Tier IV (449 or less students).
“We knew we could win if we connected because in our first game we almost beat them, but today we were off and let them win,” Froese said. “We’re going to end the season with a loss and we’ll get them next year.”
Stage fright was another reason for the subpar performance.
“I feel everybody was pretty nervous coming into it. It’s a big stadium. It’s cool playing on the field the Eskimos play on. It’s a different feeling and I believe that’s what was going through everybody,” Roberts said. “All around we could’ve played a whole lot better. Definitely some downfalls we could’ve improved on.”
Sturgeon drove the opening kickoff from its 23, highlighted by a big first-down run on the opening play by Froese, but a couple of penalties, including an illegal procedure flag on third and three put the Spirits back near the Ardrossan 40 and the drive ended with a punt that pinned the Bisons deep. The Bisons would eventually give up a two-point safety in punt formation from their 18.
The teams then took turns punting the ball seven times before Nurse, a dangerous Bison, lost the handle on a running play and Sturgeon was the last team to touch the pigskin before it bounced out of bounds near midfield with 7:32 left in the half. However, the drive stalled around the Ardrossan 45 and Sturgeon punted. The Bisons huddled up at their 23 and a couple of big plays by power back Jacob Bannon pushed the Bisons into scoring range and the drive was capped off with a five-yard TD catch with 1:47 left in the half.
Back on offence, Froese hit a wide-open Kyle Phillips for a first down at the Ardrossan 45 but on second and 10 the Bisons intercepted a pass and returned it to the Ardrossan 51.
Two plays later, a Nurse fumble was recovered by Carson Antoniuk from under a pile of players near the Sturgeon 40 with 13 seconds remaining.
The Bisons picked up the pace in the third quarter with points off two Sturgeon fumbles during a 2:26-minute span with a 20-yard field goal after Sturgeon coughed up the ball at the Ardrossan 46 and a 24-yard TD run by Nurse after the ball was turned over at the Sturgeon 37.
“The defence was holding us in the game and then when they got one touchdown (before halftime), we got down on ourselves and then in the third quarter, we got up on ourselves again. We started hitting hard and then all of a sudden they got another touchdown and we get down, and it just kind of went downhill from there,” Roberts said.
Before the third quarter ended, Froese was picked off at the Sturgeon 50 but the Bisons were shut down and on the punt Roberts got a piece of the ball as Sturgeon took over possession around midfield but would turn it over on downs.
In the fourth quarter, and Sturgeon trailing 17-2, Kolby Phillips stepped in front of a pass and returned it to the Ardrossan 18. Sturgeon worked the ball close to the goal line with a couple of short completions to Will Campbell, but on third and goal at the four Froese was unable to connect with Campbell with 6:09 to play.
The Bisons proceeded to move the ball out of harm’s way and Sturgeon never threatened offensively after that.
“When we got stopped there that was the turning point. We had our chance but we couldn’t connect,” said Froese, 16, who was presented with the MVP award during the post-game ceremony at field level.
“It means a lot. It means all the effort I put in for the last year paid off and I will work to get it again next year,” said Froese, 16, who completed 77 of 125 passes for 1,304 yards and 19 TDs and led the team in rushing with 319 on 38 carries during a 4-1 regular season.
Overall, Sturgeon finished 6-2 against Gilfillan teams in its first season after serving as a feeder school for the Bellerose football program for several years.
“It was a great season. Everybody thought we were going to be second last and we got second in the division and nobody thought we would do that good at all,” said Roberts, 17, one of 12 players, including Froese, who played for the junior or senior Bulldogs last year.
Hill, the longtime Bellerose head coach and teacher who switched schools in the off-season to start the football program at Sturgeon, focused on the positives despite the negative result while reflecting on Year 1.
“We had a fantastic season. We’re really proud of all the guys. I’m proud of the entire organization. It just didn’t end the way we had hoped for,” said the 2016 and 2017 Metro Athletics Coach of the Year in the division one Carr conference with the Bulldogs. “Ardrossan played as good tonight as I’ve seen them play all year. It was their night and they were the better team, but our guys have a lot to be proud of. We made it to the finish line. We didn’t get the banner this year, but we’ve earned some respect from around the league and I think we started a great rivalry with Ardrossan. That first game of the season was back and forth and they bested us tonight, but it should give all of our young guys – we’ve got 30-plus guys eligible to return next year – motivation in the off-season.
“I saw a lot of teary eyes in that dressing room and that means they’re passionate. That means they care and that’s what starts a culture. It’s a brand-new sports program at Sturgeon and we started something really important here. I’m really proud of the Grade 12 guys for laying the foundation and setting the tone for what football is all about and what Sturgeon football really means.
“We’ve created something really special and all those players in that dressing room should be proud of themselves.”