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Sydenham advances to National Capital Bowl final

November 15, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

One coach made no bones about it.

“I feel really lucky to be here,” Sydenham Golden Eagles coach Mike Love said Friday, after his team defeated the Almonte Thunderbolds 19-14 to claim the Eastern Ontario Secondary Schools Athletic Association senior AA football championship.

“I didn’t really feel like this was going our way as the second half was unfolding.”

To be sure, Sydenham owed its 10-7 halftime lead to a pair of Almonte fumbles; one that was recovered in the Thunderbolts end zone for a touchdown and another at the Almonte 16-yard line in the final minute of the first half that led to a go-ahead field goal.

Between the two came a 55-yard drive that moved Almonte to Sydenham’s 10-yard line. Twice in that possession, the Thunderbolts carried across the goal line, only to have the play come back each time due to penalty. Then came a quarterback sack and a missed field goal.

Though Dame Fortune may have gotten up on the wrong side of the Thunderbolts’ bed, coach Chris Spratt insisted his team hadn’t been unlucky.

“We had a couple of big breaks go against us, and they always hurt,” Spratt said. “We spotted them 10 points because we fumbled the ball … but that’s the game. That’s football. It’s moments of opportunity and how you cash in on them.

“That’s what it’s all about, and they cashed. Our kids never quit, but they got us.”

On a cold, overcast day at Caraco Field, Almonte looked formidible in the first half. The Thunderbolts, the Lanark-Renfrew champions, had the only two decent offensive drives while Sydenham, despite just 81 yards of offence, had a three-point lead.

“I don’t think either team is happy with how they executed, in general,” Love said. “Certainly our offence was misfiring for quite a while. To be up 10-7 at half, I felt pretty lucky about that.”

Sydenham was facing what was by far the biggest offensive line anyone had put in front of it all year, and the Eagles struggled to adjust to Almonte’s ground game.

“We slowed it down a bit but they were still coming,” Love said. “They’ve got a couple of tackles who are real, solid, big boys and that No. 49, he just finds holes.”

That would be Zack Kealey, who scored both his team’s touchdowns and, in a game where the teams combined for 463 yards of offence, accounted for 41 per cent of it—169 yards rushing and 22 yards on two pass receptions—by himself.

“They gave us all we could handle,” Love said.

What added to the concern on the Sydenham sideline was a four-play sequence early in the third quarter where the Eagles lost two players to injury for the duration: middle linebacker Mitch Herron and defensive end Ryan Rettie. It didn’t look like the kind of thing that would improve Sydenham’s lot against the punishing Almonte rushing attack.

“God bless the kids who went in there,” Love said. “We had a kid came over from the offensive line (Brad Thibeault) when Ryan went down; he hadn’t had played defence all year long. We’ve had four linebackers and we switched to a set today where we were only running two, so luckily we had a little bit extra there.

“Every kid that got a chance to get in there and play—and two or three of them were in another position—they did great. They performed really well. They hung in there; and they hung in there; and they hung in there, and we had just enough to win at the end.”

Eagles receiver Mike Bashall said rather than be discouraged by the loss of the two stalwarts, the Sydenham defence rallied to the occasion.

“It’s a team game,” he said. “We’re a little low on numbers. The coaches said before the game anyone who’s not starting, be ready to go, because you will be going in.

“The defence played a helluva of a game. Our offence was struggling a little bit throughout the game and they backed us, big-time. They kept us working and kept giving us opportunities to get the ball.”

Bashall was involved in perhaps the pivotal play of the game. After the aforementioned Eagles defence forced Almonte to punt from its own 23-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Sydenham, trailing 14-13 and marching from the Thunderbolts’ 53-yard line, faced third-down-and-six at the 32. With quarterback Dylan Fisher forced out of the pocket, Bashall left his feet to catch a pass for a 16-yard gain.

Four plays—and another successful third-down gamble—later, the Eagles were in the end zone when Brodie Latimer carried in from the five at 5:38 with what would be the game-winning score.

Bashall said he saw Fisher forced out of the pocket. “I think one of their backers blitzed outside, so he had to bootleg and get out of the pocket. I was open, I was calling for it, and he saw me on the cross and he just threw it to me.

“All I was thinking was, ‘I’m going to reel this ball in,’ when I saw it coming out of his hand to me. I was just thinking, ‘I’ve got to catch this.’”

It was the only drive of substance that Sydenham was able to mount in the game.

“It felt slow” in the early part of the game, Bashall said. “Our offence was struggling and we couldn’t get our stuff together. We finally felt the urgency toward the end of the game.”

Sydenham’s first touchdown came when Almonte fumbled an exchange at its own 15-yard line and quarterback Austin Stewart unsuccessfully tried to smother it. Eventually the ball found its way to the end zone, where Connor O’Brien recovered for the Eagles. Bashall later added field goals of 23 and 28 yards.

Kealey’s touchdowns came on runs of one and 25 yards, capping scoring drives of 84 and 70 yards.

“An incredible game,” Spratt said. “Both teams were hungry to get to the next level, you could feel it. We’re both rural schools, we both have a lot of pride and rich tradition. We were toe to toe.

“We had some missed opportunities in the second half,” he continued. “It wasn’t as flowful. (At hlaftime) we knew we could come back, and we came back and took the lead. It was a ball game from there on, it really was.”

For Almonte, the loss was the first in eight games this season. Sydenham, 9-0, will advance to the National Capital Bowl final, Saturday, Nov. 22 in Belleville against Peterborough Crestwood. Crestwood advanced with a 34-17 win Friday over the Ottawa AA champion, St. Mark of Manotick.

 

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