The Sturgeon Spirits are regrouping for provincials after falling short of returning to the metro Edmonton football final.
Friday’s humbling 29-14 semifinal loss to the Leduc Tigers left last year’s division three Gilfillan conference finalists to refocus on the Tier III (450 to 749 students) playdowns instead of playing the Paul Kane Blues for the division two Miles conference championship at Commonwealth Stadium.
“That’s what makes it sort of a weird feeling at this point,” said head coach Chad Hill while digesting Sturgeon’s first loss since the 28-7 season opener against Paul Kane.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t get another shot against PK and play at Commonwealth, which is a great experience, but at the same time our season is not done. We’ve earned a shot at provincials and it’s the first year of eligibility for us to be in provincials so we’re going to lick our wounds a little bit and get ready to hit on all cylinders for provincials,” Hill said.
The second-year football team from Namao rolled to six consecutive wins, including the 35-17 takedown of the St. Albert High Skyhawks to give Sturgeon a leg up on the perennial Tier III metro Edmonton reps for provincials, before Leduc lowered the boom in a big way.
“We wanted to get a banner for our school because we felt we had the team this year. We were right in the hunt and we could do it,” Hill said. “You always like to set goals every year and this year with us moving up (after losing the Gilfillan final 31-2 to the Ardrossan Bisons at the home of the Edmonton Eskimos) we wanted to make that Miles division playoffs, we wanted then to be in the championship game at Commonwealth and we want to be in provincials. We’ve hit on two out of three of those goals so it’s disappointing tonight to know we fell a little bit short of our goals.”
Sturgeon makes its provincial debut Nov. 9 against the host Whitecourt Cats of the Mighty Peace league.
In week nine of the Football Alberta Tier III rankings, Sturgeon is third and Whitecourt is sixth.
“We just have to refocus and don’t get our heads down. You’ve seen we can play ball and if we come out the way we played SACHS and some of those other teams we’ll be fine,” said Zach Froese, a Grade 12 quarterback and linebacker.
Leduc (5-1), ranked ninth in Tier II, which is one spot lower than Paul Kane (7-0), left a lasting impression on Sturgeon in the howling wind and sleet at Larry Olexiuk Field.
“They wanted it more than us. That’s the end of the story,” Froese said.
The first play from scrimmage by Leduc after a two-and-out by Sturgeon was the 64-yard catch and run touchdown against the roaring wind.
The gusty conditions also resulted in Froese’s 70-yard punt single and then a Leduc punt from deep in its end saw the ball drop down at the 26. Four plays later, Froese hit Dylan Young in front of the goal line for the 11-yard TD and Philip McLay’s convert gave Sturgeon its only lead of the game at 8-6 with 4:25 left in the first quarter.
Before quarter time, Sturgeon stopped Leduc’s fake punt attempt in front of the midfield stripe, but was unable to advance the ball.
Two minutes into the second quarter, Froese conceded a safety in the endzone in punt formation instead of kicking into the wind.
Leduc elected for Sturgeon to kick off after the safety and from its 45 quickly moved the ball and the big play was the quarterback breaking loose for a long run before the drive ended with a burst from the two for the go-ahead TD with 8:45 left until halftime.
Back on offence, Sturgeon drove the ball from its 31 into Leduc territory with Froese scrambling for yardage. Facing third and long, Sturgeon faked a punt as the ball was snapped to Kalem Stuermer and the linebacker got as far as the eight to keep the drive alive.
However, on the next play, Froese's pass into the endzone hung up in the air and the ball was reeled in by a defender behind the goal line with 3:38 to go before the break.
In the last minute, Froese returned an interception a long ways to the Leduc 20, but on third down at the 17 his incomplete pass turned the ball over with 2.1 seconds remaining and Sturgeon down 14-8.
“We knew field goals would be tough with the very strong winds that were going on and the precipitation, but we had a couple of chances in the red zone and we didn’t come away with any points,” said Hill, who was beating himself up over calling the pass play that ended in an interception instead of pounding the ball in tight of the endzone.
The only scoring in the third quarter was a single off a 38-yard field goal attempt with the wind by Leduc after Sturgeon coughed up the ball fielding a punt.
After the point by Leduc, Sturgeon pushed hard from its 35 against the wind with runs by Rylan Seewalt and Froese, plus a sizeable first down reception by Young, but a holding infraction on Froese’s dash to the seven was a major blow as Sturgeon would eventually turn the ball over on downs at the Leduc 20 with an incomplete pass with 2:50 left in the quarter.
Leduc pulled away with a run-heavy drive from its 25, culminating with an 11-yard major with 3:32 to play, and then capped off the victory with a 26-yard TD with 2:07 to play after a third-down stop at the Sturgeon 30.
“In the second half you saw our our defence started to get a little bit worn down,” said Hill, noting Stuermer, Sturgeon’s defensive kingpin, was pulled halfway through the third quarter because, “we wanted to make sure he’s OK. He’s been battling the flu and we wanted to make sure there was nothing more serious so we kept him out.”
Sturgeon closed out the scoring with a 79-yard strike from Froese to Kyle Phillips.
Froese, 17, broke down the loss in great detail.
“You could tell they prepared for what we had for them and in (crappy) weather like this it's about who wants it more at the end of the day,” said last year's Gilfillan conference MVP. “We didn’t really have any troubles (on offence), it was just execution. Ending plays. Finishing the block. Catching the ball. Execution was our big thing today.”
As for defending against Leduc, especially their elusive quarterback, “We were game planning for (numbers) 20 and five and they beat us with people other than 20 and five. We shut down what we could and did what our game plan told us to do,” Froese said.
Hill conceded Sturgeon didn’t create any breaks, however, “In some facets of the game they outplayed us and they were a little bit more opportunistic than we were.
“We also shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times as well.”
Leduc had a first-round bye as the top team in pool B because of the three-way tiebreaker with Ardrossan and the Archbishop Jordan Scots while Sturgeon, second in pool A, upended ABJ, last year’s champions, 39-6 in the opening playoff round.
“Leduc deserves credit. We knew they would be a tough team. They'll grind you down. They're one of those teams that's physically tough, but they’ve got enough athletes in the right places where they can make some plays,” Hill said. “They’ve got over a dozen really good Grade 10 kids up from that bantam program (that won the 2018 Tier I provincial championship) so the future looks bright in Leduc.”