The Sturgeon Spirits delivered a stunning message against the heavyweight contenders for the division two Miles conference championship.
On the receiving end of the 35-17 knockout punch were the St. Albert High Skyhawks in Friday’s wicked confrontation between the two metro Edmonton teams ranked top-10 provincially in Tier III (450 to 749 students).
“It says Sturgeon football is legitimate. We’re for real,” said Chad Hill, head coach of the second-year team after the decisive outcome at Larry Olexiuk Field.
Last year’s 5-2 division three Gilfillan finalists are rolling along at 4-1 in league play as winners of four in a row in pool A of the new Miles/Gilfillan conference alignment that determines the playoff pairings in both conferences.
Sturgeon also clinched second place behind the Paul Kane Blues (5-0) with one game to go in pool A for a berth in the Oct. 18 opening playoff round against the third-place pool B team in the Miles’ playoff bracket.
In the Football Alberta rankings, Sturgeon moved up one spot to fifth while the Skyhawks, 4-2 for third place in pool A, dropped two placings to seventh.
The playoffs will also declare which team will represent metro Edmonton in the Tier III playdowns. If both teams lose out in the opening round or semifinals, then Sturgeon advances because of its victory against the Skyhawks.
“Team wise, it’s a great win. It makes the playoffs and the provincial picture way better for us,” said Kolby Phillips, a Grade 12 defensive back who stuck the fork into the Skyhawks with a pick-six to make it 14-1 with 40.3 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Was it a statement win for Sturgeon against a veteran lineup of talented players from last year’s 8-3 finalists in the Miles and Tier III north provincials?
“I would say so. Teams were saying that we shouldn’t have moved up, but honestly we should’ve because if we can lay a boom like that then we should be up in div two,” said Phillips, one of 19 returnees on the Sturgeon roster.
The majority of the local football community would view the result as an upset, but not Sturgeon.
“It’s not much of an upset. We’re both two strong teams,” said Kalem Stuermer, a Grade 12 playmaker at linebacker.
Phillips agreed. “I wouldn’t say so. I have faith in our team that we should not have been ranked so low, or thought of as so low, compared to the Skyhawks.”
Sturgeon grabbed the game by the throat after the Skyhawks scored a point off the opening kickoff and the fourth converted TD on the first play of the second quarter put the opposition into a deep hole without a shovel down 28-1.
The first half ended 28-4 and in the third quarter Sturgeon led by 31 before a pair of TD receptions by the Skyhawks closed out the scoring before quarter time.
“We had an amazing first half,” Phillips said. “As the lead got bigger, not only did it make the offence perform at their best, but the defence just kept wanting to keep going and going and get the ball back for them so they could score more.”
The first TD was a four-yard run by Rylan Seewalt after the Skyhawks turned the ball over on downs on their first series with Steurmer leading the defensive charge in stopping the run in front of the midfield stripe.
In the last minute of the first quarter, Phillips intercepted a pass by Ewan Vanderheide and, from around midfield, booted it all the way into the endzone.
“I was thinking the whole entire time he wasn’t going to catch me,” Phillips said of out-running the Skyhawks’ quarterback on arguably the key play in the match. “It got the defence hyped. Actually, all the offensive touchdowns were good because it got them hyped, too.
“It was just a hyped game.”
After the kickoff, the Skyhawks fumbled the ball away in the backfield and Stuermer played a major role in the recovery as Sturgeon lined up close to the one-yard line and quarterback Zach Froese finished off the turnover with 7.8 seconds left in the quarter.
The Skyhawks also bobbled the ensuing kickoff and Dylan Young out-hustled everybody to grab it around the 30 and, when the second quarter started, Froese wired a pass down the pipe to Kyle Phillips for the 25-yard score and Philip McLay’s fourth conversion left the Skyhawks trailing by 27 points.
Skyhawks head coach Sam Johnson addressed the slow start in the post-game interview.
“For whatever reason we came out a little bit flat. Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong, but the boys fought back and you take away the first quarter it’s a different ball game,” Johnson said.
The defence continued to make plays as Carson Antoniuk recovered a fumble at Sturgeon’s 42 after the team was assessed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for the hit on Justin Stoneham of the Skyhawks. Stoneham, a valuable two-year Skyhawk, was injured on the play and done for the night.
With 1:51 to go in the first half, Marco Vercillo kicked a 33-yard field goal that was set up by Jackson Ganton’s catch for big yardage in Sturgeon territory.
In the last minute before the break, Elligah Webonga recovered a Sturgeon fumble around midfield, but a few plays later Karl Haasz’s quarterback sack squashed any hope of more points by the Skyhawks.
Sturgeon wrapped up the memorable win on the second TD reception by Phillips as Froese rolled out to his left and with time to spare hit Kolby’s 17-year-old twin brother in the back of the endzone for the six-yard major with 7:31 remaining in the third quarter. McLay’s conversion was good.
Leading up to the TD was a substantial punt return by Will Campbell, followed by his sideline grab at the Skyhawks' 42. Sturgeon put the ball in Campbell’s hands again and a tackle of bounds drew an unnecessary roughness flag on the Skyhawks.
Before the quarter ended, the Skyhawks made the score look respectable with TDs three minutes apart as Vanderheide teamed up with Ethan Katicic for a 47-yard catch and run, and later dropped a nice ball into Ganton's hands in tight double coverage in the shallow corner of the endzone. Vercillo kicked both conversions.
Sturgeon tied the bow on arguably the most important win in the team's short history with Campbell’s interception in the endzone with 2:34 to play and less than a minute later Kolby recovered a ball off a botched catch by the punt returner.
To say Sturgeon was gung-ho to play the Skyhawks is an understatement.
“It was an amazing victory. We’ve been practising and looking forward to this game for weeks,” Stuermer said. “Our defence made some good plays, we were filling our gaps and had good pressure with our D line on the pass rush, and our offence was capitalizing on field position.
“We just played as hard as we could. We played some rough, mean football,” Steurmer added. “This win says that we practise hard, we come out to play and we should stay in div two.”
As the new kids on the block, Sturgeon had a point to prove against the established football program based at St. Albert Catholic High School.
“We’re not the deepest team in the league, but every boy we put out on the field is playing with passion, they’re playing with heart and it showed today. We were the more physical team and against St. Albert High. That says something because they’re a noted physical defence and a physical team, and we set the tone with the physicality and we carried it through right to the end,” Hill said. “It kind of pumped us up when there were questions about why some (Gilfillan) teams would come up because it's going to be lopsided scores and maybe unsafe, and we proved physically this year we're as tough as any team in this division, but we also have some skilled players, too.
“I just hope the players that were forced to leave the game are OK – I know they had a few go down and we had a couple go down that I think will be all right – but it got to be a war of attrition in the second half.”
As for the Skyhawks, “We got bit by the injury bug tonight. We lost one, two, three starters and two backups. You can’t play that way,” Johnson said of the wild and wooly affair with unnecessary roughness and objectionable conduct flags littering the gridiron against not only players from both teams but also a Skyhawks' assistant coach who blew his stack over a non call when the Sturgeon defender rocked a Skyhawks’ receiver on an incomplete pass in front of the team’s bench in the fourth quarter. The coach had to be restrained by some players and Johnson was forced to usher him away from the sideline to cool off as the referee marched off 15 yards against the Skyhawks for objectionable conduct.
The lack of composer on the Skyhawks’ bench was played out in full view of the SACHS principal, Damon Clayton, an interested observer on the team's sideline.
“We had some coaches that maybe did a little bit of stuff like that but we gathered our stuff together. I thought we were good on the bench after that,” Johnson said of the lack of decorum by the Skyhawks. “This referee doesn’t take any flak from anybody so we’ve got to mind our p's and q's.”
Johnson didn’t take the bait when asked if the loss was worse than the 17-14 setback to Paul Kane.
“Well, no. Any loss is a tough loss for us,” said Johnson, noting, “We knew they were a good team and we’re a good team too. That’s high school football. That’s why you play the game.”
As the third-place pool A team, the Skyhawks will wait and see who finishes second in pool B as the team’s Oct. 17 opponent. A win would set up another juicy Battle of St. Albert with Paul Kane in the Oct. 24 semifinal.
“We get a week off, it’s our bye, and hopefully that will help with our injuries and we'll be ready to go when we play,” said Johnson, who downplayed the state of the Skyhawks entering the playoffs, especially with high expectations surrounding the team’s potential of going to the Alberta Bowl after losing the last four Tier III provincial north finals to the Holy Rosary Raiders of Lloydminster and the season of hope was illustrated with the team’s surprisingly earlier than expected first practice Aug. 14.
“I’m worried more about the injuries. I want to get our boys back and make sure they’re healthy first, but I’m not worried about how we're going in at all. We’ve got a fairly mature team and some good athletes and when you’ve got good athletes and a little bit of maturity you can do a lot of things.”
Sturgeon will play the McNally Tigers (1-4) Friday at 5 p.m. at Larry Olexiuk Field before huddling up in the playoffs.
"We’re going to keep grinding and grinding in practice and keep doing what we’re doing,” said Stuermer, 17, who strengthened Sturgeon’s defence as a transfer student from Bruderheim after playing last two years with the Fort Saskatchewan Sting and in 2018 was a Metro Athletics All-Star and All-Edmonton Gilfillan Team selection.
“I wanted to take welding and the nearest school that offered it was Sturgeon,” said Stuermer, who sat out the first game of the season, 28-7 loss to Paul Kane, while the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association gave its stamp of approval on the transfer.