An agonizing season for the Stettler Wildcats took a turn toward finality at home last Saturday in a 22-2 loss to the HJ Cody Lakers of Sylvan Lake.
It was a two-edged sword for the Wildcats, because the first-round Central Alberta High School Football League playoff game doubled as a qualifier for Tier 3 provincial playdowns.
On both of those counts, the season is finished for the Wildcats, who host the Lindsay Thurber Raiders of Red Deer in league consolation playoffs at 4 p.m. this Thursday in Stettler.
The Wildcats blanked the Lakers 11-0 in their final regular-season game a week earlier, but it was a different scenario Saturday in windy conditions.
Stettler never got on track in front of a big crowd that included many fans from Sylvan Lake.
Stettler coach Norbert Baharally knew the Sylvan rivals would provide a tougher test in the playoffs — and that they did.
“I told (the Wildcats beforehand) that Sylvan didn’t play all their guys when we saw them last time,” said Baharally, the 25th-year coach. “It was essentially a meaningless game, let’s say, because it had no bearing on the outcome of either division. Whereas us, we were already injury-ridden, we played the guys that we had — that’s what we had to do last week and again this week. We played the guys that we had. We have a lot of guys that are still out (with injuries).
“Going into a game with seven linemen, it’s tough. We just don’t have the depth. It was hard to compete against them today, there’s no doubt.”
One of those injured Wildcats was the towering Christian Young.
“We wanted Christian in the game to tie up (the Lakers’) big No. 67, TJ Sloboda, to try to make sure that he had a wrap on him so that our linebackers would be a little more open to make some plays,” said Baharally, whose Wildcats welcomed the return of a rookie.
“Jeremy Kirk came into the game at halftime. He had an injury all week, he didn’t practise, and he wasn’t expected to play, at all. Somehow, he decided that he wanted to try it. He came back in the second half and played, and made a couple of catches.”
But it was generally a tough day for the Wildcats and in many ways it mirrored their up-and-down season.
The giant Lakers flag blew prominently in the wind during a forgettable finish for the Wildcats, long regarded as the flagship team from William E. Hay Composite High School.
“Well, (the Lakers) have a team,” said a frustrated Baharally. “We don’t have a team this year. And I’ll say that publicly. I told my guys that at halftime. It’s been very disappointing this year as a coaching staff — we don’t have the commitment, we don’t have the pride, we don’t have the desire, and we don’t have the will to come out for practice. But, the day before the game, everybody wants to come out to practice, and then they expect to get in the game. And they expect us to do well.
“We have some talented individual players, but football is a team sport. And unless we get our team committed 100 per cent to be there every practice and to work hard together and develop as a team, you’ll never be a team. And that was evident today.”
The Wildcats had their moments this season and won their division, but they didn’t have the committed horses to be a championship threat.
“We won our league this year, and we were very lucky that we did, considering the amount of participation, or lack of participation, we had at practices,” Baharally said. “It’s been very frustrating as coaches, having only 20 players show up at practice. When you win a game, 11 players show up. And you win a game, and 16 players show up …”
Although last Saturday’s game — with public-address acknowledgment of the senior players — very much seemed like a finale, the Wildcats play again Thursday.
They host Lindsay Thurber in one of the league’s consolation semifinals.
At home last Friday, the Raiders lost 22-13 to the West Central Rebels of Rocky Mountain House. The Rebels advance to face Sylvan Lake in the next playoff round.
Elsewhere, the Lacombe Rams beat the Camrose Trojans 38-18 to earn a semifinal date with the Hunting Hills Lightning of Red Deer. The Lightning pounded the Wetaskiwin Sabres 52-6 last Friday.
Hunting Hills is ranked fourth provincially among Tier 2 schools.
After being slotted at ninth and 10th in the previous couple of weeks, Stettler slipped out of the Tier 3 rankings with the loss to Sylvan Lake, which is ranked seventh in that category.
Rocky Mountain House is ranked eighth among Tier 4-sized schools.