Cougars 34 Lakers 29
One team was stricken hard by the flu bug, the other was finally healthy after battling injuries most of the season.
In the end, the boys from the infirmary, the Notre Dame Cougars, pulled out a tight 34-29 win over the defending champion Sylvan Lake Lakers in a Central Alberta High School Football League semifinal on Friday at Great Chief Park.
The Cougars, down to 25 players from 45 during weekday practice sessions due to an outbreak of the flu, needed a late touchdown to fend off the upset-minded Lakers, with quarterback Kyle Devine tossing a 13-yard scoring pass to Glen Ritchie with exactly one minute remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers then advanced into the Cougars’ half of the field with their final offensive foray, but quarterback Howie Gray was intercepted by Connor Borle at the Notre Dame 25-yard line. The Cougars promptly recorded a first down and then killed the clock.
Notre Dame will meet the Lacombe Rams in the league championship contest, tentatively slated for next Friday at Great Chief Park. The Rams downed the visiting Hunting Hills Lightning 14-3 in Friday’s other semifinal.
“We had some guys out tonight and that hurt us,” said Cougars head coach Gino Castellan, who was missing three key starters to illness. “Hopefully they’ll recover this week and we’ll have a full squad for the final. But I give Sylvan Lake a lot of credit. They battled hard and we played just well enough to win.”
But Castellan was OK with that, considering the overall condition of his team.
“I told the kids I was proud of them with the way the week went,” said the Cougars sideline boss. “We had guys who didn’t come to school all week, but we dug deep when we had to. The offence scored when they needed to and our defence stopped the other offence when they had to.
“We’ll learn from this and it will definitely be a tough game next week.”
The Cougars led 21-17 at halftime, but fell behind when Gray hooked up with Justin McCartney on a 54-yard pass-and-run for six points with 4:01 left in the third quarter.
Notre Dame answered right back when Dale MacDonald crashed over for a major from one yard out less than two minutes later. But with 5:37 left in the contest, the Lakers again surged ahead as Brad Hunhold, in the corner of the end zone, pulled in an 18-yard scoring pass from Gray.
The Cougars took over at midfield with two minutes left and scored the go-ahead points 60 seconds later.
“We felt we were a pretty good team coming in,” said Lakers head coach Jeremy Braitenback. “We’ve been injured most of the season and a lot of guys came back tonight. We challenged Notre Dame and I think they knew coming into the game that it was going to be a battle, too. We didn’t disappoint.”
The Cougars got first-half touchdowns from Tyler LaGrange on a 101-yard kickoff return, Nathan Stearns on a passing play and a six-yard run by MacDonald. Scoring for the Lakers in the first half were Ian Graham on a 16-yard pass, Gray on a one-yard run and then again with a 20-yard field goal.
“A couple of plays and the game could have gone either way,” said Braitenback. “It just tells you that we’re up near the top again, but I have to take my hat off to Notre Dame. They have a good team and they played well tonight.”
The Lakers will travel to Cold Lake in two weeks for a northern Alberta tier 3 semifinal.
MacDonald led all rushers on Friday with 171 yards on 28 carries.
Gray completed 14 of 20 passes for 206 yards for the Lakers, while Cougars quarterback Devine was three-for-eight for 36 yards and Stearns completed his lone pass — a 37-yarder to Ritchie. Graham was the Lakers’ top receiver with seven catches for 70 yards.