The Bellerose Bulldogs escaped a playoff demotion by knocking off one of the teams to beat in metro Edmonton high school junior football.
The Bulldogs (4-1-1) locked down a semifinal spot in Tuesday’s 33-29 nail-biter against the Salisbury Sabres (4-2) at Emerald Hills Regional Park.
It’s the 11th top-four finish in 12 years as the juniors qualified for the premier/division one playoffs spanning the pre- and post- 2013 merger of the metro and Edmonton public leagues and includes four undefeated championship seasons in five trips to the final.
“It was an extremely important win. We basically took out the number one team in the league to get us into the playoffs so we didn’t have to go into the B section of the playoffs in the league,” said Zach Froese, a Grade 10 quarterback.
The Bulldogs are the only high school junior football team in St. Albert after the Paul Kane Blues pulled the plug on their junior team this year and the St. Albert High Skyhawks ceased operation of their junior team in 2014 because of a lack of players for both programs to field junior and senior teams.
The Bulldogs are also 38-2-1 in league and playoffs combined after losing the 2011 semifinal.
The Bulldogs will huddle up in the Nov. 7 semifinals after closing out the regular season Monday against the Ross Sheppard Thunderbirds (0-6). Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at Clarke Stadium.
“We’ve got to take it like we’re facing the number one team again. We’ve got to play on all cylinders. We’ve got to do as best as we can even if we’re up by a lot or down by a lot,” Froese said.
The Bulldogs are ranked third offensively averaging 31 points per game and fifth defensively with 19.3 against.
Froese, 15, described the season as “up and down” and the team’s record includes a 28-28 come-from-behind tie with the Harry Ainlay Titans (4-1-1) and a disturbing 54-6 loss to the Jasper Place Rebels (5-1), the defending champions. Last year, the Rebels stymied the Bulldogs 27-11 in the division one semifinals and it was the first regular season loss since 2011 for the Bellerose junior program.
“Some games we’re clicking really well and some games it just hasn’t been there but Tuesday was one of those games where we were just clicking,” Froese said. “In the second quarter we were just in rhythm a lot but in the second half it kind of fell off and we kind of looked sluggish almost.
“We still came out with the win and that’s what mattered.”
In the first quarter against Salisbury, the Bulldogs were unable to move the ball and the Sabres had one long drive that ended in a fumble forced by defensive end Zachary Roberts.
The Bulldogs got rolling in the second quarter while scoring four touchdowns. Froese and Jakob Kikkert hooked up for a 75-yard catch and run to the one. On the quarterback sneak, the ball came loose and guard Tanner LeLacheur was credited with the fumble recovery in the endzone.
The Bulldogs continued to air the ball out as Froese wired TD passes to Jordan Howe and Ethan Mickleborough.
Froese also punched the ball in on a short run after a long gain by Mickleborough.
The Bulldogs missed the fourth convert as the half ended 27-0.
Salisbury scored on its opening drive of the third quarter and kept scoring to close the gap to 27-21 in the fourth.
A designed quarterback run of more than 40 yards resulted in another Froese TD.
Leading by 12, the Bulldogs milked almost three minutes off the clock with a ground heavy drive.
Back on offence, Salisbury scored on three plays and was successful on the two-point conversion.
With 19 seconds remaining, Salisbury did an onside kick and gained possession in Bellerose territory after the ball bounced off the hands of one of the Bulldogs.
Salisbury was on the verge of busting loose for the game-winning score with a dangerous run but the ball popped out and the Bulldogs recovered it at their 15 with 10 seconds to go to seal the deal.
“Our defence came up big with a fumble. They poked the ball out and made us look good and we got to kneel it for the win,” said Froese.
The Grade 10 Sturgeon Composite High School student is the linchpin of the Bulldogs’ attack with 16 TD passes.
“It’s been a good year. I give credit to my coaches and my line especially. My line has been great in giving me opportunities to complete passes and make runs,” said the Fort Saskatchewan bantam product who made the 2017 Football Alberta Bantam Bowl north team as a defensive back. “Our receivers are great and with our line doing so good we probably have the most passing yardage in the league.”