The road to the Alberta Bowl travels through Lloydminster for the St. Albert High Skyhawks.
The driving force is the Tier III provincial championship and a victory today against the Holy Rosary Raiders would send the Skyhawks into Friday’s final at Lacombe.
“It’s pretty good to be in this position. We’re excited,” said Josh LeBrun, a Grade 12 Skyhawk, at Wednesday’s practice at Larry Olexiuk Field. “Our team is tough and we’re ready to play on Saturday.”
Today’s north playoff kicks off at 3 p.m. at Holy Rosary High School in the Border City.
“It just shakes me up thinking that we can be provincial champs,” said Matt Swecera, a high-energy Grade 10 linebacker. “I really want to win it for our Grade 12s who don’t have a ring yet and they really deserve it considering how much work they put into this program and how much time. It would be very great knowing that they had a ring before they graduated.”
Today’s winner will challenge the Cochrane Cobras or Cardston Cougars in the Alberta Bowl.
“We would be very honoured to represent the north in the provincial final,” Swecera said.
In Tier III (450 to 749 students), Cochrane (9-0) is No. 1, Cardston (9-1) is No. 2, the Raiders (7-4) are No. 4 and the Skyhawks (6-3) are No. 5 in the Football Alberta top-10 rankings.
Cochrane and the Raiders have clashed in the previous two Alberta Bowls with the Cobras winning 29-20 last year and 55-0 in 2015.
Cochrane also beat the Skyhawks 31-20 in the 2012 final.
The fifth north final in the sixth Tier III playdowns for the Skyhawks since 2011 is also the third in a row against the Raiders.
The four-time Wheatland league champions shut out the Skyhawks the last two years while winning by 28 in 2015 at Lloydminster and by 61 in 2016 at Clarke Stadium.
“They’re definitely big and fast this year and they have been the past few years for sure,” LeBrun said. “In Grade 10 we had a good showdown against them and last year not so much but with the talent we have this year we should have a good chance.
“As long as our offence can get the momentum and move the ball and if our defence really steps up this game I think we can get it done.”
Swecera, 15, is also a believer.
“We just need to stick to our game plan and if we do that we will beat them,” said the 2017 Football Alberta Bantam Bowl participant. “Our defence has to be strong. Defence wins championships and as long as we shut them out we’ll be good.
“We also take pride in running the ball and we have the best running back in our league,” added Swecera, in reference to Christian Pulis, the team’s nominee for the Haliburton Trophy as the MVP in the metro Edmonton division two Miles conference. The Grade 12 Skyhawk was also a 2016 All-Edmonton Football Team selection in the Miles.
The Skyhawks are one win away from the Alberta Bowl after polishing off the Peace Wapiti Academy Titans of the Mighty Peace league for the second-straight year in the north semifinals. The Skyhawks gutted out a 25-9 decision against the Peace Bowl finalists last Saturday in the snow at Grande Prairie and the year before scored 22 unanswered points to close out the 22-7 victory at Johnny Bright Park.
“We won that game (in Grande Prairie) on defence. They didn’t really have the ball a lot because we were forcing a bunch of turnovers and three and outs,” said Swecera, who inflicted pain on the Titans on the defensive side of the ball and was a bowling ball offensively filling in for the injured Danny Johnson in the backfield with a touchdown run to seal the deal.
“It was just great blocking by the guys.”
The Titans (7-4), ranked seventh in Tier III, trailed 8-1 at halftime.
“We just kept on being physical in the second half and I feel that really had an effect on their runners and on their offence,” LeBrun said. “It just sucks coming into the second half when you’re losing and getting hammered every play by a physical team. That’s kind of a mental game at that point.”
Ewan Vanderheide, a Grade 10 quarterback who stirs the drink offensively, and the difficult to catch Pulis also ran for TDs.
LeBrun, Johnson, Jackson Ganton and the rest of the defensive unit made big play after big play to stop the Titans in their tracks.
“That game really did come down to defence especially against the run game,” said LeBrun, a middle linebacker and offensive tackle. “Our offence did have a bit of a hard time moving the ball but we had some of those plays where they just clicked and it helped us win that game.”
LeBrun, 17, is among 15 returnees from last year’s 4-6 team that was slowed by injuries in the rematch with the Raiders.
“Our team bond this year has been really close. We’re like a real family and I think it’s really come into play this year. Last year it didn’t feel like quite as much of a team as this year. This year it feels like we’re there for each other,” said LeBrun, one of the 14 Grade 12s on the roster who is savouring every second of their last year of high school football at St. Albert Catholic High School.
“Practice kind of sucks right now when it’s cold but it’s still fun to come out with the guys knowing you still have a chance to play a sport you love, so it’s all good.”