The Stettler Wildcats ran into more than a snowstorm last weekend.
Playing at home in temperatures approaching minus- 20 C, the fourth-ranked Wildcats fell behind early and lost 31-14 to the third-seeded St. Paul Lions on Saturday, ending Stettler’s bid to repeat as the provincial Tier 3 high school football champions.
One day after a major snowfall blanketed Alberta, St. Paul opened a 21-0 lead in the first quarter of the North region semifinal, a provincial quarter-final that was rescheduled for an hour later to enable the Lions more time to travel on potentially problematic winter roads.
“Overall, I think we had a pretty good effort,” said Stettler coach Norbert Baharally, whose Wildcats regrouped and rebounded from a 28-0 deficit to close the gap to 28-14 in the third quarter.
“We started very flat, giving up 21 points in the first 10 minutes of the game. I think a major turning point early in the game happened when we turned the ball over deep in (the Lions’) end after putting together a nice drive. I think it was one or two plays later that (Jason Jubinville) broke free and ran a long one in for a touchdown. We were just not able to recover from that, but who knows — we might have had the same outcome, even if we scored at that point.”
Stettler seniors Austin Cherewko and Morgan Loshny scored back-to-back touchdowns as the Wildcats tried to rally, with rookie Frank van Ommeren kicking a pair of converts.
“We played very well in the second half, but just ran out of time,” Baharally said. “They won the first half and we won the second half — it is just unfortunate that they beat us in the first half by a bigger margin of points.
“Our team played very hard and did not give up. We fought hard right to the end of the game.”
The Wildcats finished the season with a 7-2 record that included six straight wins to open their 2012 schedule. Their two playoff losses sandwiched a 57-28 victory over the Sylvan Lake Lakers in the Central Alberta High School Football League third-place game, which doubled as a Tier 3 provincial qualifier.
For the past month, they’ve played in winter-like conditions, and this past Saturday’s offering took the elements to another level.
“I feel that our players handled the minus-16 temperature pretty good,” Baharally said. “It was nice that there was really no wind.
“The guys that handle the ball a lot all had hand warmers that were made by one of our parents. Both teams had big Herman Nelson heaters and a shelter on their respective sidelines. Parents also put tarps around the bleachers and heated it for the fans.
“It was definitely cold and tough to hang on to the football at times. Our guys had some problems with fumbling the ball when they hit and also catching the ball at times. However, the conditions were the same for both teams.
“I think it was the footing on the field that made more of a difference to our team than the actual cold. But again, both teams were playing on the same frozen field, which was difficult to run on and make cuts.”
The Lions ran their record to 9-1 as they booked a berth in a provincial semifinal against the St. Albert Skyhawks, who defeated the Peace River Pioneers 49-21 in their quarter-final. St. Paul and St. Albert face each other in the North final this Saturday at Foote Field in Edmonton.
In the South region final, the Cochrane Cobras meet the Winston Churchill Bulldogs of Calgary on Saturday at Shouldice Park in Calgary.
Second-seeded Cochrane, which lost to Stettler in last year’s provincial final, defeated the top-ranked Crescent Heights Vikings of Medicine Hat 32-16 on Saturday. Winston Churchill beat the Olds Spartans 28-10 in their quarterfinal.
In the Tier 2 provincial playoffs, the Hunting Hills Lightning of Red Deer visit the unbeaten Catholic Central Cougars of Lethbridge in semifinal action this Saturday. Hunting Hills beat the Springbank Phoenix 14-7 last Saturday in Calgary.