Johnny Bright Park – The football season kicks off Nov. 11 for the St. Albert High Skyhawks in the Tier III provincial playdowns.
“This is for all the marbles now. It’s win or go home. The season is over if we lose now. We’ve got to come out and do our jobs,” said Danny Johnson, a Grade 12 linebacker and running back, after the 16-3 setback to the Paul Kane Blues In the division two Miles conference semifinal.
The Skyhawks (5-3) head to Grande Prairie to battle the Peace Wapiti Academy Titans (7-2) in the north semifinal at 1:30 p.m.
In the Football Alberta Tier III (450 to 749 students) rankings, the Skyhawks are No. 4 and the Titans are No. 6.
The teams squared-off last year with the Skyhawks winning 22-7 and in the north final the St. Albert Catholic High School team took it on the chin 61-0 against the Holy Rosary Raiders of Lloydminster. The injury-riddled Skyhawks trailed by 28 points after the first quarter and it was a done deal at halftime with the Raiders leading by 46.
The Raiders went on to lose the Alberta Bowl 29-20 to the Cochrane Cobras.
The Cobras and Raiders are ranked first and third, respectively, this year in Tier III.
“It’s provincials so the teams are going to be a little bit difficult so we’re going to go out and just fight and try and do our best,” Johnson said.
The north final was the fourth in six years for the Skyhawks as the Tier III metro Edmonton reps after Paul Kane formed its own football program in 2011 instead of serving as a feeder school for the Skyhawks’ football team.
The winner between the Skyhawks and Titans will likely play the Raiders or the No. 5-ranked Sylvan Lake Lakers (7-1) on the road in the Nov. 18 north final.
The Alberta Bowl is Nov. 24 at Lacombe.
“We beat them last year but now we’ve got to travel this year but that’s OK because now we get to play against schools our size. We’re not playing schools (in the Miles) like PK that’s got 1,000 kids and the O’Leary’s that got 2,000 kids. We’ve got 648 but (our) students will fight right to the end and you saw that tonight. There was no give up on our team,” said head coach Sam Johnson. “The competition we play here does nothing but prepare us more for provincials. We’ll take a couple of days off and heal our bumps and bruises and we’ll get back at it for the 11th.”
The Skyhawks hung tough with the Blues (7-1) Friday after falling behind 14-0 early in the first quarter. The Blues returned a punt roughly 60 yards for a touchdown before their offence stepped on the field and the second TD was a 74-yard quarterback gallop on the third play during Paul Kane’s first offensive series.
“We weren’t mentally ready in the first quarter,” said Johnson, 17.
The Skyhawks also gave up a safety in the endzone in punt formation with 8:31 left in the first half after Jackson Ganton recovered a fumble at the Skyhawks’ two following a pass play by the Blues on first and goal at the nine.
“We gave up those 16 points in the first half but we played a hard second quarter and a hard second half. We just couldn’t get anything going on offence really,” said Johnson, a third-year Skyhawk. “It was a hard fought game and we fought our hardest.”
The Skyhawks struggled to gain traction offensively despite some encouraging drives with Christian Pulis gaining yards in bursts and quarterback Ewan Vanderheide spreading the ball around to players like Ganton, Nick Romaniuk, Robin Arguelles, DeAmonte Overman and Mason Mildenberger.
Credit the Blues’ underrated defence for rising to the challenge when needed to stop the Skyhawks on third down or force them to punt.
Also, an avalanche of penalties buried the Skyhawks at crucial times on offence and defence.
The Skyhawks scored their only points on Koen Klinge’s 35-yard field goal with 3:44 to go in the third quarter. A third-down stop on a quarterback run up the middle by the Blues turned the ball over at the Skyhawks’ 52 and Pulis did the bulk of the running to put the pigskin in position for Klinge to kick the stuffing out of it.
Klinge, a Grade 12 soccer player, also bent the ball like Beckham just wide of the posts from 36 yards to end the quarter after Ryley Onyschuk picked off a pass around midfield with 2:58 to play before quarter time.
“Defence played great second quarter on,” said coach Johnson. “They’re a good team, there is no doubt about it, but we felt we had our chances. We didn’t get many breaks I felt, but our deference came hard and put some hits on their quarterback and he was a little nervous and wasn’t throwing the ball well after that.
“We played our hearts out and that’s all we can do.”
In the quarter-finals, the Skyhawks pulled victory from the jaws of defeat when the McNally Tigers (4-3) basically choked with the lead in the last minute while trying to run out the clock from inside their five-yard line.
After the turnover on downs, a shovel pass from Vanderheide to Overman ended the game with the Skyhawks on top 31-27.
“It was weird. We got the quarterback down with one second and caused the turnover. We were fired up and ready to get that touchdown; we just went out there and got it done,” said Johnson, one of 14 Grade 12s and 15 returning players on a team that plays with pride and passion.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. Every game this year we came out and fought, even in the two games we lost in the regular season (43-30 to the Blues and 42-14 to the O’Leary Spartans) we were down by a lot and we didn’t give up and we kept fighting hard. That’s what we’re all about.”