Riders romp to provincials

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Spruce Grove – The St. Albert Riders are in a league of their own as the Tier I peewee champions of the Capital District Minor Football Association.

The 10-0 powerhouse joins the 2006 Riders as the only St. Albert peewee teams to capture the Tier I playoff cup for a berth in the Football Alberta championship.

“It feels great to take this home for St. Albert,” said a beaming Cohen Bernas, a super-sized Grade 7 lineman after the Riders pulled the plug on the Edmonton Chargers 26-6 in the wind and snow Sunday night at Fuhr Sports Park. “It means we’re one of the best teams in Alberta.”

The Riders celebrated like Grey Cup champions.

“It’s insane,” said a jacked-up James Hill, a Grade 7 quarterback who gobbled up the yards along with tag-team partner Josh Mah running the ball. “Not many people get to experience this.”

The Riders (436 PF/40 PA, including five shutouts) can join the 2006 St. Albert peewees as Tier I provincial champions with a victory over the Calgary Wildcats on Saturday at Taurus Field in Fort Saskatchewan. Kickoff is 1 p.m.

The only Tier I provincial minor football championship in St. Albert history was 11-6 for the Riders over the Calgary Bulldogs 12 years ago at Clarke Stadium.

“We have to prepare and if we have everything down pat, we’ll be totally fine,” said Hill, 12.

The Riders stampeded over the competition in the Susan Morgan division for a shot at the provincial title.

“We were the team to beat and you’ve got to live up to that so you’ve got stay undefeated,” said Hill, a William D. Cuts student.

The final was the tightest margin of victory for the Riders since the 35-14 result against the Chargers on Sept. 15.

The Chargers (6-4, 337 PF/153 PA), third-place finishers in league play, were coming off their sixth win a row, 24-20 over the second-place Millwoods Grizzlies (7-2) in the Tier I semifinals.

“The Chargers are a difficult team. Their number 43 (slotback Andre Acielo) was a really good player but our defence came up big. We shut him out and we won the game,” said Bernas, a nose tackle who was slotted at defensive tackle in the final while also lining up at right tackle on offence.

The first half was a defensive stalemate as the teams went toe-to-toe battling the weather and field conditions while turning the ball over on downs.

On the second play of the second quarter, the Riders were unsuccessful punching the ball in on third and goal from the one while losing yards on the play and the Chargers proceeded to advance the ball to their 51. However, tackles in the backfield by Bernas and Jayden Tieulie resulted in the Chargers turning the ball over at their 43. The Riders didn’t waste time as Hill busted loose carrying the mail but was stopped short of the goal line and on the next play Mah scored from the one with 8:25 left until halftime.

As the half wound down, a fumble recovery by the Chargers at their 26 prevented the Riders from adding to their lead.

The Chargers were also stopped in their tracks with Tieulie coming up with some big stops for the defence, including a sack on third down as the Riders took over the ball in enemy territory at the 20. A 12-yard run by Mah to the eight was followed by Hill’s eight-yard TD burst on the outside to put the Riders up by 12 with 35 seconds remaining.

The score stayed intact throughout the third quarter as the defence, led by Bernas and Tieulie, continued to make life difficult for the Chargers. A key third-down stop at the Riders’ 45 with 3:08 to go before quarter time snuffed out a drive that started with the Chargers recovering a fumble at their 31.

Back on offence, the Riders ended the first half with pivotal runs of 24 yards by Mah and 13 yards by Hill.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Hill jetted 31 yards to pay dirt and Mah’s one-point conversion run made it 19-0.

After the kickoff, the Chargers answered with a 12-yard TD with 9:56 to play.

“We actually slowed down a little bit in the second half,” Bernas said. “The first half we were all hyped up and then the second half it was like we’re probably going to win this so we cooled down and that’s why they scored those points.”

The Riders regrouped after the TD and following the kickoff marched the ball from 31 on the strength of a big run by Hill for a crucial first down as he was deposited out of bounds at the Chargers’ 41. A couple of plays later, Mah steamrolled over a Charger during a determined dash before he was hauled down at the three. Mah finished off the drive from the one for the team’s fourth TD. He also ran in the extra point with 2:46 remaining.

“It’s a team effort. They were all team touchdowns,” said Hill, who also played safety on defence.

On the ensuing kickoff to the Chargers, Jamie Clark recovered the ball and that was the ball game.

As for the TSN turning point in the final, Hill replied: “It was when we executed and we stopped them. They weren’t prepared for us, but we were prepared for them so that’s why we came out on top.”

The majority of the senior varsity Riders played for the junior varsity peewee team that lost the 2017 Tier III league final.

“Last year, we were a really good group of kids. We just didn’t have the size or the skill but this year, we were way more experienced. We have way more players so we can keep our players fresh and we can do it,” said Bernas, 12, a Cuts student.

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Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.