The Stettler Wildcats dusted off the Camrose Trojans 39-3 at home last Thursday to finish the Central Alberta High School Football League regular season with a perfect 6-0 record befitting their No. 1 ranking provincially.
The Wildcats, provincial Tier 3 champions in 2011, begin their next playoff journey at 4 p.m. Friday in Stettler in league quarter-final action against the Lacombe Rams.
Stettler defeated Lacombe 17-0 in season-opening action Sept. 6 at the William E. Hay Composite High School field.
The Rams and Sylvan Lake Lakers were the Wildcats’ two wildcard opponents this season, with Stettler placed in a pool with Camrose, Ponoka, Wetaskiwin and West Central (Rocky Mountain House).
The new format this season deprived the Wildcats’ of their traditionally tough Red Deer opponents, but the Stettler kids passed a test of another sort this fall.
“Definitely, to go 6-0 in the regular season, it’s good,” Wildcats coach Norbert Baharally said after Monday’s practice. “I think everybody would agree that the competition in this pool maybe wasn’t the best throughout the league, but at the same time, we did it with a team that was banged up throughout most of the year.
“And I’d like to believe now that when we get into playoffs here, that we’re going to have all our horses back and everybody is ready to go.”
Some of the all-star Wildcats battled injuries for much of the regular season.
Senior quarterback Morgan Loshny, out since Game 1 with a knee injury, dressed for last week’s game, but didn’t see any action.
“We’re hoping that we’ll get him back on a limited basis on Friday,” Baharally said of Loshny.
“Braden Nelson injured his ankle last game against Camrose. We’re hoping he’s a game-day decision, and be ready to go.
“Darren Gendre ended up getting hit and injured that same game. He’s going to the doctors (Tuesday), so hopefully we’ll get clearance from him that he might be able to go.”
Likewise for senior slotback Austin Cherewko, whose injury kept him sidelined last week. He dressed for the game, but otherwise took the week off to nurse an irritated tendon. He’s banking on a return to action for Friday’s playoff-opener.
Despite the season-long string of injuries, the Wildcats maintained their top ranking among Tier 3 schools in Alberta, and kept pace with high expectations that carried over from last season.
“I think we’re doing pretty good,” Cherewko said.
“So far, so good. We went 6-0, so that’s a good thing.”
“But, yeah, I think we’re living up to our expectations,” Cherewko said. “We just have to follow through from what everyone thinks we can do, and believe that we can do what we can do. Because I believe we’re a good team, and the coaches believe we’re a good team, and our community believes we’re a good team.
“So I think if we take all that believing and put it into action, we can do a lot of damage.”
Cherewko said that even with a 6-0 record, the Wildcats faced credible tests from Sylvan Lake and Lacombe.
“Those are the toughest teams we’ve played so far, and I think we came out of it pretty good.
“Some of our major players were (out with injuries), so I think our rookies and our backups did really good. Them stepping up was a huge factor.
“Now, the more people, the merrier. I think players coming back will be a good thing, and the rookies that have played against other teams can actually know how to play, and got some experience.”
Gendre, one of Stettler’s gritty sophomores, was shaken up during last week’s game.
“I think he got tackled,” Baharally said. “They grabbed him by the facemask or the helmet and kind of twisted his neck on the way down.
“Obviously, with a head and neck injury, you want to be as cautious as possible, and that’s what our training staff did. They stabilized and immobilized everything and then called paramedics to make sure nothing was serious.”
The Wildcats have given teams serious competition all season, even with the likes of Loshny, Nelson and Ty Page missing for parts of the schedule.
Baharally cautioned that both Stettler and Lacombe will likely field stronger teams this week than when they first faced each other about six weeks ago.
“Both teams, obviously, weren’t polished at that time of year,” he said Monday night. “We just saw some film on Lacombe here tonight, from their game (a 45-35 loss to the Notre Dame Cougars) on Friday. They’ve improved. They have a pretty decent passing attack, with Austin Ericson (at quarterback). I’m familiar with him from Shock (midget) football. So it’ll be an interesting test for us.
“I still maintain that we have the best front seven. Teams are going to have a hard time running the ball against our front seven, but if were susceptible to any kind of thing, giving up a big play on defence, it would be a big ball and a big pass over our heads.”
SCOREBOARD: In the Wildcats’ rout of Camrose last week, Nelson scored two touchdowns, while rushing for 111 yards on six carries. Mark Forrester and the Cassidy cousins — Parker and Thomas — each had one touchdown. Rookie kicker Frank van Ommeren added five converts, a field goal and a single. Tyler Stewart had 103 yards rushing on 12 carries, while Parker Cassidy gained 53 yards on two tries.
PLAYOFF MATCHUPS: Along with the Stettler-Lacombe matchup, other quarter-final games pit Hunting Hills against Camrose, Notre Dame against West Central and Sylvan Lake against Wetaskiwin.