Their quick-strike offence was instrumental, but the Hunting Hills Lightning captured yet another Central Alberta High School Football League City Division title Saturday by relying on a stout defence.
With their defence shutting down the strong running game of the Notre Dame Cougars, the Lightning gradually took control of the contest and cruised to a 29-7 victory before 574 fans at Great Chief Park.
It probably wasn’t the script the three-time defending champion Lightning wanted to follow, at least early on. Thanks to strong defensive play — and a series of offensive errors — by both teams, the opening quarter was scoreless until Hunting Hills quarterback Eric Thomson hooked up with Zech Pilgrim on a 35-yard pass-and-run touchdown play with no time remaining.
“It was a tough first quarter, we started slow,” said Pilgrim. “But we started getting momentum after a couple of big plays and that really got us comfortable.
“We were hyped to get into this game. It was a fun day.”
The Cougars conceded a safety, Brandt Burzuk broke a pair of tackles and ran 21 yards to the end zone, and Eder Arias booted a 34-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter to give the Lightning a 19-0 lead at the intermission.
Thomson went down with a shoulder injury on the Lightning’s first possession of the second half and was replaced by Burzuk, who promptly tossed a nine-yard touchdown strike to Pilgrim. At 26-0, it was basically game, set and match, through no fault of the Cougars’ defence.
“Our defence had been good all year. I was a little disappointed in our offence today,” said Notre Dame head coach Gino Castellan. “Their front seven beat us up, that was disappointing.
“But the kids have to play the game and hopefully they’ll learn from this. We have a lot of young kids and hopefully we’re back here again next year.”
The Notre Dame offence finally broke through in the fourth quarter as Payton LaGrange slipped in behind coverage, hauled in a pass from Devin Desormeau and scored on a 52-yard pass-and-run.
“Our defence was outstanding. We played really well but we allowed a big play there,” said Lightning head coach Kyle Sedgwick. “It was kind of a blown coverage. Our corner and our half got mixed up a bit, but otherwise it was a great ball. Other than that one play we held them pretty well, including their run. They have two great running backs and they used them both, but we held them in check.”
Arias, who converted all three Hunting Hills majors, kicked a late 24-yard field goal to round out the scoring for the 2015 City Division champions, who this Saturday will be in Calgary to take on St. Mary’s in a south regional tier 2 semifinal.
While Thomson is likely out for the remainder of the season, the Lightning will either go back to Burzuk at quarterback or rotate Brandon Rees and Layton Barisenkoff at the position.
Burzuk left Saturday’s game in the fourth quarter after being tackled while in an awkward position.
“We had some key injuries on offence. We needed our defence to hold us in there and they did,” said Sedgwick. “With Brandt it’s a bit of a muscle issue but hopefully he’s OK for next week.
“It’s just unfortunate. You never want to see injuries, especially at this time of the year going into provincial play. Without Eric, we’re going to have a tough time next week, but on the bright side he is in Grade 11 and does have next year.”
The Cougars’ season will continue as well, with the team moving on to a south tier 1 semifinal this Saturday against the host and No. 1 provincially-ranked St. Francis Browns of Calgary.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the province, if not the country,” said Castellan. “It will be fun for our kids to be involved in some high level football.
“Today we just didn’t come with the right game. Kyle’s team did and they won.”
• In the Central Alberta Rural Division final at Sylvan Lake, the host Lakers got two touchdowns from Tristan Koller in a 41-0 rout of the Stettler Wildcats.
Koller scored on a five-yard run and a 39-yard pass from Patrick Bennet and led all rushers with 122 yards on 14 carries.
Ethan Mearns scored on a 45-yard run, Ryan Arnold hauled in a screen pass and recorded a major on a play that covered 36 yards, and Trent Tarling and Tyrese Hamilton ran seven and six yards, respectively, to the Wildcats end zone. Dagan Slimmon added five converts. Mearns rushed for 102 yards on five carries, Bennet completed seven of 14 passes for 148 yards and teammate Mike Smyth was one-for-one passing for 20 yards.
Stettler quarterback Jordan Lane was seven-for-19 passing for 115 yards. Alex Leblanc was his main target, making two receptions for 44 yards.
The Lakers will be in Lloydminster Saturday to face Holy Rosary in a north regional semifinal.
• Jonathan Goulet kicked a 40-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining as the Lindsay Thurber Raiders edged the Lacombe Rams 25-23 in the City Division consolation final Thursday at Great Chief Park.