The Sylvan Lake Lakers were gaining momentum in the second quarter, fresh off back-to-back touchdowns that had cut the Stettler Wildcats’ lead to 21-15.
There was still a hush on the Stettler sidelines, and a buzz on the Sylvan side, when Wildcats senior running back Braden (Bob) Nelson saw an inch — and took a mile.
On the kickoff return, he ran 107 yards for a game-breaking touchdown that restored Stettler’s confidence and accented a season-saving 57-28 victory.
“I wasn’t even thinking they were going to kick it to me,” Nelson said. “I thought they were going to keep it away from me. But it went down the middle. It just went in between me and Austin (Cherewko), the other returner, and I just ran back and grabbed it, and I was thinking, ‘Get as far upfield as I possibly can,’ and I just happened to bust through.”
The Wildcats busted all the way to the Tier 3 provincials as the Central Alberta High School Football League representatives. They now face St. Paul in a provincial quarter-final at 1 p.m. Saturday in Stettler.
Nelson, who also had a big run early in the game, scored three touchdowns on a chilly afternoon that was at least warmer than practice conditions in the preceding week.
“I think we came pretty prepared for the weather,” said Nelson, 17. “It was actually a lot nicer out today than it was all week. It wasn’t too bad.
“The best thing I liked is there was actually more traction. I could actually run.”
Indeed, he could run. So much so that the public-address announcer christened Nelson as Talladega Nights racecar driver Ricky Bobby — a label last year used to describe Ricky Armstrong, a Wildcat graduate who returned to the sidelines last Saturday in support of his former teammates.
Nelson continues to wear a knee brace, as he has since returning to action in early October against those same Lakers.
“He had a big game when we played them there (in Sylvan Lake) and he had another big game here today, for sure,” Wildcats coach Norbert Baharally said Saturday.
Nelson is among 15 seniors who didn’t want the game to be their last in a Wildcat football jersey.
The Wildcats were coming off a 42-14 loss to Red Deer’s Notre Dame Cougars in a league semifinal the previous week.
“Last week, I had a pretty bad game, so almost in this one, I was trying to make it up to my team,” said Nelson, five-foot-11 and 180 pounds.
“I’ve played football a few years … I wasn’t really nervous for this game. It was the first game I was not nervous for. I just talked to myself — go out there and do my jobs that I’m supposed to do, and if we don’t come out with the win, I did all I could.”
The Wildcats left it all on the line and extended their season, keeping alive their hopes of repeating as the provincial Tier 3 champions.
“Everyone was real excited,” Nelson said. “They were all really excited, but there’s also some nerves, ‘We’re going to provincials,’ almost a little shot kind of thing. Provincials are definitely one heck of a test.”
The Wildcats appear ready to write that test.
“Honestly, I can see them going pretty far in provincials, if (opponents) can’t find a way to stop Braden Nelson,” said Sylvan Lake graduating quarterback Chase Hoffman.
“He’s good. He’s fast.”
Hoffman and Lakers receiver Tyler Ledwos are a lethal combination, and they showed much of that chemistry Saturday. But the defensively sound Wildcats were equal to the task and showed their depth — fortified this season because of injuries to key players.
Along with Nelson’s heroics, Parker Cassidy added two touchdowns, while Cherewko, Clayton Steen and Grade 11 quarterback Stephen Zuk added one each. Frank van Ommeren contributed seven converts.
Ledwos and Trent Kondor each had two touchdowns for Sylvan Lake.
The Wildcats have a 7-1 record this season.
St. Paul (8-1) defeated a Tier 4 school, Cold Lake, 40-21 last Saturday in their league championship.