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By Chris Marchand
The Neelin Spartans player had only been free of the ball for a fraction of a second before a Dryden Eagle carrying the momentum of a half-dozen full strides in his direction had forced the air from his lungs and replaced his view of the field with the featureless grey of the October sky.
“That’s why we LEAVE NO DOUBT!”, bellowed a voice from the Eagle’s sideline amidst a murmur of protest from the Brandon camp.
The unofficial Eagles’ mantra — which has led them into uncharted territory in 2016— has its roots in the heartbreak of last season’s Winnipeg High School Football League semi-final when the Eagles watched a promising lead over Brandon’s Vincent Massey evaporate in the final minutes of the game as a tide of calls saw the momentum shift in their rivals’ favour.
“You can only tell the kids ‘life isn’t fair’ so many times,” said Eagles head coach Geoff Zilkalns. “Rob Rodgers brought in the motto ‘leave no doubt’ and it’s become our approach. We try to build-in a margin for error and unpredictability in all our games.”
In 10 games in an unbeaten season including three shut-out wins, that margin for unpredictability has been no less than a 21-point cushion on every final score.
A 28-6 semi-final win against the ‘AA’ Churchill Bulldogs at Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field last week was no exception.
What might have been a little more uncharacteristic was a greater reliance on the Eagles offensive depth and passing the ball with Xavier Korzinski scoring on a 29 yard throw from Carter Armstrong and Jacob Bilous scoring on a 44 yard catch and run from Jarett Hicks.
“We see what the teams are trying to take away from us and yesterday they tried to take away a lot of our inside running,” said Zilkalns. “Rather than beat our heads against the walls and force something we probed around a bit and the air game was one of the areas that they left a little more open for us.”
On a fake field goal, Donovan Parenteau scored on a six-yard strike from Liam McFayden to cap off the second quarter.
Liam Wrolstad scored the Eagle’s fourth touchdown with a 13 yard run in the 4th quarter.
Preparing for Portage
At 6-1 the Portage Collegiate Trojans are division standouts, their only regular season disappointment coming when Dryden dealt them a 27-6 home field loss, Sept. 16. Since then, however the squad has used offensive speed and a rock solid defensive line to cruise through the regular season.
“I think it left a sour taste in their mouth, losing to us in week two,” said Zilkalns. “I think they expected to beat us. They can beat us, they are physical and they have some weapons — they’re not a one-trick pony. They’re going to prepare very hard for this. Since week two they’ve mentioned that they’re looking forward to getting together with us, so I think it will be a very spirited affair.”
McLeod says containing members of Portage’s offence like Branden Friesen, who leads the division in rushing yards (1,226 yards in 116 carries) will be key.
“They are a fast-strike offence,” said McLeod. “We watched them put six points on the board in under a minute. Their running back and two wide receivers are three of the four fastest kids in the province on the track in the 100m and 200m. Their linemen are enormous. We really have to contain them because they are a crisp team. It’s going to be a great game.”
Tying the division record for most touchdowns in a single game (6) in October against Tec Voc, Eagles running back Liam Wrolstad might just be a marked man in the final, but McLeod says the semi-final proved Dryden’s ability to adapt to pressure and exploit new opportunities. The Eagles have a much more diversified quiver of five players, including Jarett Hicks, Liam Wrolstad, Aiden Bibeau, Mason Desautels and Carter Armstrong who have rushed for over 100 yards this season.
“Teams come in expecting us to run the ball the whole game, so when we started throwing it — the Churchill coaching staff just had their hands up in the air saying ‘where did this come from?’. So it’s really nice we were able to develop that more yesterday (Nov. 3). The interior offensive line and those wide receivers — we’ve been asking them to block alot of the time and they do so very selflessly. When we do finally get the ball in the air like we did last night those kids just light up. We’ve had such a fun time scoring touchdowns in the air.”
Zilkalns says he wants his Eagles to set the tone and the speed of the final.
“We still have the things we enjoy doing — that given the choice we’ll try to accomplish. We want to be flexible, the kids are experienced, we’ve run the same things all year long, so the confidence is there for the kids to execute. I think we’ll be a little more clean this week. The stadium novelty will have worn off. We’ve played Portage before so I think we could even play a little faster pace.”