By Greg Price
A two-point conversion with just over a minute left to play propelled the Taber bantam Rebels over the Lethbridge Bulldogs 26-25, to a Division III Southern Alberta Minor Football Association championship.
Down 19-6 at the half at the University of Lethbridge field on Saturday, the Rebels mounted a furious second-half comeback, which started with a couple of key runs by running back Evan Harkness, who capped off Taber’s first drive of the half with a touchdown.
Quarterback Mike Sawatzky connected with slot back Brett Andrus for another third-quarter score to pull Taber with a point at 19-18, before the Bulldogs built the lead back up to seven points with a touchdown.
That set up a dramatic fourth quarter, as Taber marched the ball down the field late, and Sawatzky and Andrus hooked up on another touchdown score through the air, to cut the Lethbridge lead to 25-24.
The Rebels elected to go for two, and on the next play, Sawatzky hit Ben Kakuk in the endzone to put Taber up 26-25.
“We called a time-out to discuss what we wanted to do there,” said head coach Garrett Simmons.
“It was a tough decision but I decided to go for two, and really, Mike and Ben made that decision the right one. They improvised and we were able to pull it off to take the lead.”
The touchdown and two-point convert brought an explosive second half to an end for Taber’s offence, a unit that struggled in the first two quarters.
“The Bulldogs defenders, every one of them, came to play in that first half. The defensive line really pushed our guys into the backfield and the linebackers were super aggressive. I think we only had four or five first downs.”
Brandon Szigli did ignite the Rebels with a long kick-off return for a touchdown in the second quarter, but aside from that special-teams play, the Bulldogs kept the Rebels in check.
“There were some plays there for the taking in the first half, like a reverse which was set up perfectly, but we blew a blocking assignment and missed a huge opportunity,” said Simmons, who added Lethbridge defenders did a phenomenal job shedding blocks early on.
The tide began to turn in the third quarter, when Taber made the decision to attack the heart of the Lethbridge defence.
“We went right up the middle, right behind our two best linemen, and they opened up some big holes for Evan,” said Simmons.
“He made a few kids miss on a couple of back-to-back plays and Evan picked up some huge yards and a big touchdown to get us going.”
Taber took to the air to pick up its next two scores, as the Grade 8 combination of Sawatzky and Andrus did the majority of the damage.
“We had a feeling we could hit Brett on a quick pass to the outside, and I kept that play in my back pocket until we needed it,” said Simmons of the play that led to Taber’s second touchdown of the third quarter.
A six-receiver look helped Taber score again in the first quarter, as Andrus hit paydirt once again on a pass play which set up the dramatic two-point conversion attempt.
“That spread look did cause a bit of confusion for the defence, and we tried to exploit it a bit in the first half too, but Lethbridge’s pass rush took us out of rhythm,” said Simmons.
“They did a good job of pressuring our quarterback and not giving him time to find the open receivers.”
The Bulldogs also used a tough, power-running attack in the first half to wear down Taber’s defence. Time and time again, off tackles and belly runs broke off consistent chunks of yardage, as the Bulldogs churned out three scoring drives. Taber made a couple of adjustments in the second half and gradually, the Rebels defence turned the tide.
“You could see the script flip a bit,” said Simmons. “In the second half, it was the Bulldogs running backs who started wearing down a bit and we were able to get some key, key stops.”
The biggest stop of the game came after Lethbridge recovered an onside kick after the Bulldogs took a 25-18 lead. A ball popped high into the air and dropped right behind a Rebels returner, and Lethbridge took over in Taber territory.
“Right there, we could have been deflated and we could have thrown in the towel,” said Simmons. “Instead, the defence came on the field and bailed us out and gave the offence a chance, a chance we didn’t pass up.”
Szigli, who came into the game after Harkness left with a leg injury in the fourth quarter, earned a couple of key first downs on the ground on the final drive to set up Taber’s final score, which sent the large crowd at the University of Lethbridge Community Stadium into a frenzy.
“It was an amazing atmosphere for the kids,” said Simmons. “The fans for both teams were extremely loud in that fourth quarter and often times, we couldn’t even communicate with the kids on the field because it was so loud. But on that last drive, when Lethbridge had just over a minute to try and come back, the defence really fed off that energy.”
Speaking of the defence, Wyatt Thurston was Taber’s leading tackler, while Kakuk and Corny Froese came up with interceptions. Brandon Szigli and Orion Schnarr recorded fumble recoveries, and Thurston had a blocked punt.
“To say we buckled down defensively in the second half would be an understatement,” said Simmons. “You could see the determination and the fight in those kids and when the game was on the line, our defence stood up and did the job.”
The win ends the season for the Rebels, as for the 2014 season, Football Alberta has done away with the Tier IV provincials.
“If this was under the same format as last year, this game would have determined SAMFA’s representative in Tier IV provincials,” said Simmons. “It’s too bad we can’t keep playing, like the Bulldogs did last year when Lethbridge narrowly beat us in the playoffs, but if you had a write a script about how the season would end, I don’t think I could ask for anything better, or anything more dramatic. The bottom line is, the kids earned this victory, and each and every one of them should be proud of their efforts this year. It was a great group of kids and I could not be more proud of them.”