Commonwealth Stadium – The Paul Kane Blues face an uphill battle in the provincial playdowns as the second-best team in the division two Miles conference.
In Tier II (750 to 1,249 students), the No. 6-ranked Blues (7-2) of the metro Edmonton league will challenge the No. 1-ranked St. Joseph Celtics (11-0) of the Mighty Peace league in Saturday’s north semifinal at 4 p.m. in Grande Prairie.
The Celtics, last year’s Alberta Bowl finalists, are winners of four consecutive Peace Bowl championships.
The winner advances to the Nov. 18 north final as the visiting team against the No. 5-ranked Austin O’Brien Crusaders (5-4) of the metro league’s division one Carr conference or the No. 4-ranked Lloydminster Barons (7-1), the Wheatland league finalists who beat the Blues in last year’s north semifinal 22-15.
Preparations are underway for the fifth provincial appearance in five years for the Blues after losing 37-0 to the Strathcona Lords (9-0) for championship honours in the Miles.
“We need a whole knew mind-set. We need to focus on the next game and forget the last one,” said Ethan Brandsma, a Grade 11 defensive stalwart, after Friday’s result left the Blues reeling.
“It’s pretty disappointing. We know they’re a good team and they’re a team to be reckoned with,” said Brandsma, a beast on both sides of the ball. “I thought we would’ve at least put some points on the board.”
Strathcona, the defending champion, led by 16 at halftime.
“We hung in there for a bit but they sort of wore us down in the end,” said head coach Rob Strecker. “It wasn’t so much the way my guys played, that’s just a good football team. All the credit to them. They totally deserved it.
“Obviously I wanted to keep the score a little closer.”
The Celtics are another stiff test and the last two times the Blues lined up against St. Joe’s in the north semifinals the results were losses of 22-1 in 2014 at Foote Field and 33-9 in 2015 at Grande Prairie.
The second setback was only the fifth loss in 31 games for the Blues during a three-year span highlighted by back-to-back undefeated Miles’ championships and a berth in the 2015 Carr final.
“The question is how good are they?” Strecker said of the 2017 edition of Celtics. “Yes, they’re ranked number one but I think the game might be a little closer (than the Miles final). “Once I get my guys refocused and they realized that you know what? You played a hell of a football team so let’s give it a run and let’s see what happens.
“I’m excited about going up there and obviously disappointed right now but that’s the way it goes.”
The scuttlebutt is the Celtics are a carbon copy of Strathcona – big and fast with a punishing run game and a defence that swarms to the ball.
“Everybody talks about that Paul Kane is fast but they’re just as fast as us and they’re bigger than us,” Strecker said of Strathcona, a Tier I (1,250-plus students) size high school.
“That defensive line is the best D line I’ve ever come across in high school football. I don’t care if it’s Carr, if it’s Miles, that line is incredible and we had no answer for it,” Strecker added. “They were just so quick and strong. They were in our backfield and we couldn’t do anything. They just neutralized us.”
The Blues averaged 32.5 points per game before Strathcona imposed its will on the offensive unit.
“Our offence struggled to move the ball and that was really the only thing that held us back. If we had got even at least one drive for a touchdown we could’ve totally won this game or got some confidence at least to make it a close one,” said Brandsma, who was slotted in the backfield to serve as quarterback Connor Guy’s bodyguard against Strathcona’s rampaging defence as the Blues scrambled to play catch up.
The Blues were unable to establish a run game and dropped balls were a problem as were poor reads.
However, the offensive line performed valiantly in pass protection despite being overmatched.
Special teams also did a solid job in containing Strathcona’s big threats.
But a loss is a loss and the Blues definitely took it on the chin.
“There are a lot of disappointed boys in (the change room) right now and disappointed coaches too,” Strecker said. “With Grande Prairie, they’re a good football team too, but I just can’t see them having a line like these guys. We were trying things we don’t normally try but we didn’t have the time to get the ball down field and we had a guy in Connor’s face and it’s just because that line is that good.
“So I’m hoping that we can do some things that we weren’t able to do today. Footing played a little bit of a role but obviously it was the same thing for them too so you can’t use that as a excuse.”
To only lose by 37 points was a moral victory for the Blues.
“The defence did an outstanding job in keeping us in the football game,” said Strecker, noting Strathcona had great field position all game and a couple of breakdowns in the secondary benefited the Lords. “Our plan was to stop that run and then all of a sudden they started going over the top so we were crowding inside.
“But the kids really tried hard.
The Blues escaped the first quarter down only by nine. A long opening drive by Strathcona ended with the ball bouncing out of the receiver’s hands for the opportunistic interception by Luke Eady at the Paul Kane four. The Blues would concede a safety on third down with 7:20 left in the quarter.
Back on offence at the Strathcona 35, the Lords marched the field with pinpoint precision before running the ball into the endzone from the 11 with 2:58 to go before quarter time.
“The first couple of drives they were just ramming it down our throat,” Strecker said.
After the kick-off, the Blues appeared to gain some traction when Guy’s pass went off the hands of a defender to Jake Strakowicz behind the Strathcona player for a 25-yard gain to the 39 of the Lords but the Blues would turn the ball over on downs at the 37.
The Blues hung tough defensively before Strathcona padded its lead with a 12-yard TD reception with 1:33 remaining in the second half.
The play was set-up by a Strathcona interception at the Paul Kane 53 after the Lords were flagged for pass interference on Strakowicz.
The third quarter ended with Strathcona in front by 24 after a 12-yard TD run and two-point conversion with 3:45 left in the period and 54 seconds into the fourth quarter a 21-yard TD run made it 30-0.
“We know they’re a good team but when they come out that hard it does make it difficult to keep your heads in the game,” Brandsma said. “But our defence was amazing.”
Brandsma played a whale of game while making numerous tackles all over the field.
Rylan Baerg was another buzz saw defensively.
As for the big game staged on the home field of the Edmonton Eskimos, “It was very exciting. It was one of the most exciting games of my life actually,” said Brandsma, a linesman by trade who caught a rare pass while posing as a slotback in the second half.
The frigid weather conditions added to the unique atmosphere surrounding the final.
“It was very cold but it was manageable,” Brandsma said. “It would’ve been nice if there were more people here but it’s a big stadium. Overall it was pretty good.”