Several times this season Notre Dame Cougars head coach Gino Castellan has been able to get his bench players plenty of playing time.
He hopes that experience will pay off today as the Cougars meet the Sylvan Lake Lakers in Central Alberta High School Football League semifinal action at 7 p.m. at Great Chief Park.
The Cougars have run into the ‘flu bug, which could leave several starters on the sidelines.
“It hit us really bad,” said Castellan. “I expect four or five starters to be out.”
Several of the hardest hit are on the offensive line along with league rushing and scoring leader Dale MacDonald. As well outstanding linebacker Braden Fordyce will be out, but mainly because of an injury.
“Braden is out for sure while Dale has missed practice all week, but I did see him at school today, so hopefully he’ll be ready,” said Castellan late Thursday.
If MacDonald isn’t 100 per cent it will affect the league’s best ground game. He finished the season with 1,658 yards and 16 touchdowns and helped lead the Cougars to an 8-0 record.
Lakers head coach Jeremy Braitenback would love to see MacDonald out.
“They have the best running game in the league. In fact they have one of the better power running games I’ve seen in the league for years,” he said. “Teams know what they’re going to do and yet they haven’t been stopped yet.”
The Cougars also have one of the better defences, allowing 88 points, second only to the Lacombe Rams, who allowed 66. The Lakers were third giving up 97.
The Lakers finished the season in fourth place with a 5-3 record, but were solid down the stretch as they got most of their injured players back, including quarterback Howie Gray.
“Howie’s return was a big for us,” said Braitenback. “The first time we played the Cougars (a 21-3 Notre Dame win) we didn’t have him. His return allows us to run more of a balanced attack.”
“He’s a great athlete and along with Ian Graham they have a very good passing attack,” he said.
Graham led the league with 31 receptions.
The Lakers are still missing running back Justin McCartney, but Kyle Winder and Brad Huhnold have stepped in and done a solid job. Both finished the season with 442 yards rushing.
Braitenback knows his team is ready for the playoffs.
“We said at the beginning of the season we’d start slow and improve as the year goes on and be playing much better by the playoffs. And it’s worked out that way. We’re getting healthy and our young guys are gaining experience.”
The Lakers will represent Central Alberta in the provincial Tier III championships, opening Nov. 7 at Cold Lake.
On the other side the Cougars are the No. 1 ranked team in the Tier II rankings, but have a tough road ahead.
Both Lacombe and the Hunting Hills Lightning, who meet today at 4 p.m. in Lacombe, are also in Tier II. As a result the Cougars need to win the league to advance.
“Being ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean much if we don’t win,” said Castellan.
l The B-side of the playoffs sees the West Central Revels of Rocky Mountain House travelling to Wetaskiwin and the Lindsay Thurber Raiders at Camrose.