Foote Field – The St. Albert Storm survived Wednesday's playoff pressure cooker in dramatic fashion.
Spencer Duff darted five yards to score the game-winning touchdown on the Storm's second offensive series in the overtime shootout and a gallant defensive stand ended the suspense in the 29-22 barnburner against the Edmonton Chargers.
"It's such a huge win for the team," said a very happy Duff during a jovial post-game celebration. "We really showed a lot of heart today."
Ian Morrison's quarterback sack on the last play of the game in front of the Storm bench unleashed a tidal wave of euphoria.
"It felt amazing. It was exhilarating and very overwhelming," said the lanky defensive end, who was mobbed by teammates after the championship-clinching tackle in the midget spring league tier II final in the Capital District Minor Football Association.
On third and six at the Storm's 31, the Chargers' quarterback rolled to his left but was quickly bottled up by the ferocious Storm defence.
"I just got in there and Adam Sturgess and Joe Ur forced him into me. They pretty much set up the tackle for me and I finished it off," said Morrison, a Grade 11 Bellerose Bulldog.
The tension at field level was thick with emotion as the play unfolded.
"To win it the way we did is an absolute thrill," said Devin Kondro, a wrecking ball at fullback and defensive tackle who punished the Chargers for 142 rushing yards and one TD. "It's so cool when you're down to the dying seconds and it's the last play and you're so focused on doing whatever it takes to help your team win the game. It was incredible."
The Storm whipped up a memorable playoff performance after the Chargers opened the scoring with an 85-yard TD run on the first play from scrimmage.
The team of Grade 9, 10 and 11 players regrouped to tack up 15 points to lead by eight at halftime. After three quarters it was 22-15.
"We thought we had them but they came back and then we took them in overtime," Duff said. "We got help from everybody all game. Everyone pitched in and we got it done."
With 9:01 to play the Chargers pulled even with a 24-yard TD. The convert was good.
On the last play in regulation time, and the wicked affair a stalemate, the Chargers punted the ball from the Storm's 37-yard line for the winning point but Tayler White ran it out of the end zone.
"There was no way we were going to lose today," Kondro said. "We played amazing. Everybody was awesome."
In overtime the Storm huddled up first in scoring range at the 35 but on second down and 20 back at the 45 White's pass was picked off.
On their first crack from the 35 the Chargers gained only five yards. On third down they elected to punt to break the tie but White had no trouble returning the ball out of the end zone.
Back on offence at the 35, White hit Nathan Mitchell with a swing pass on second and eight and the receiver battled hard to get the first down. On first and 10 the pitch to Duff gained four yards. On second and six, White was flushed out of the pocket and on the tackle the Chargers were flagged for facemasking. The penalty put the ball at the five and on first and goal Duff charged through the defence to put the Storm ahead to stay.
"I got some good blocking. The hole opened up and I just had to drive through a guy," said Duff, a Grade 11 tailback who rushed for 50 yards in the final. "It felt great to score like that. It's my biggest touchdown ever. It was really cool too to come back to the boys after I scored but it wasn't all by me by any chance. Everyone helped out."
After the convert by Adam Anderson, it was do or die for the Chargers at the 35. After an incomplete pass on first down, Kyle McCardle and Kieran Fraser combined to snuff out a running play at the 31, setting the stage for the defensive play of the game.
"You could feel the pressure. It was all on us. If we let them score we would've had to play some more so we had to get the job done," Morrison said.
Ur was the leading tackler on defence with eight and Mitchell and Galen Pon had six apiece. Pon also recovered a fumble late in the third quarter.
"In the first half we played great and then in the second half we sort of fell apart and then we kicked it back up again," Morrison said.
The offensively ringleader was White, a gunslinger at quarterback with 13 completions on 21 pass attempts. Josh Wilkie was his main target with six catches for 74 yards. Kondro was on the receiving end of four passes for 47 yards rumbling out of the backfield. Mitchell grabbed two passes for 20 yards.
White also scrambled for 42 yards and scored a pair of TDs from one yard out. He also spent time at safety and was arguably the best player on the field.
After the Chargers got on the board first, the Grade 11 Bellerose Bulldog engineered a 67-yard drive, culminating in Kondro's seven-yard TD as he bulldozed through three tacklers en route to crossing the goal line. Key first downs by Kondro (on third and short to the Chargers' 50), Dallas Moroz (catch at the Chargers' 35) and Wilkie (29-yard reception on White's pass off a fake punt) kept the Storm marching. Anderson's convert tied it at seven.
White's quarterback sneak with 6:23 left until halftime capped off a drive from the Chargers' 49. A couple of pass completions, including a short strike to Kondro for big yardage as he bowled over a couple of defenders, plus a roughing the passer flag, highlighted the drive. A great call by special team's coach Mark Dobko saw Anderson run in the two-point convert off the fake point-after-attempt as White, the holder on the kick, flipped him the ball to make it 15-7.
In the third quarter, after the Chargers tied it at 15 with a one-yard TD and two-point convert pass, the Storm roared back to regain the lead on White's second TD and Anderson's convert. The 61-yard drive featured a nine-yard reception by Wilkie, a 21-yard dash by White and a 23-yard crash ball by Kondro to the five.
"Our offence really pounded it in there all game," Kondro said. "Defence shut them down when they were supposed to. Special teams were great too."
The fantastic finish to a season marred by injuries to several prime-time starters exceeded expectations. The Storm were down to 23 players on the bench after starting the year with 50 trying out.
"It's absolutely wonderful to see how all those injuries pulled us together," said Kondro, 16, a Sturgeon Composite High School student and two-time winner of the senior Bulldogs' most valuable player award.
After kicking off the season with a 14-14 draw against the first-place Edmonton Mustangs in a game the Storm let slip away, they were blown out 44-18 by the second-place Battle River Shock and 44-13 by the third-place Chargers. The Storm regrouped to win their last four games, including back-to-back shutouts prior to the final to place fourth out of seven teams. Their overall 4-2-1 record exceeded last year's 3-4 showing as tier III champions.
"What we did today just shows how far we came as a team. The way everybody improved was just ridiculous. Everyone stepped up and became way better players," said Duff, 17, who attends St. Albert Catholic High School.
The trials and tribulations throughout the roller-coaster season brought out the best in players from both St. Albert high school teams and the St. Albert bantam program.
"We definitely bonded. Coming from the two St. Albert high schools we had some beefs before but we just forgot all that and played as a team," said Morrison, 17.
Head coach Chad Hill saluted the players in his post-game speech.
"A lot of you guys have shown a ton of improvement. All of you are going to contribute and be very important to your high school teams," Hill said. "It's been a great year and everybody should be proud of what they accomplished."