For the first time in 21 years, a Central Alberta team is heading to the Football Alberta High School Tier I Regional Final.
Big plays and shutdown defense were the name of the game for the Notre Dame High School Cougars, who romped to a 27-8 victory over Edmonton’s Harry Ainlay Titans during Regional semi-final action last weekend.
“Our big time players stepped it up today,” said Cougars Head Coach Gino Castellan after the evening shootout at MEGlobal Athletic Park in Lacombe on Saturday.
After claiming their first Central Alberta High School Football League title since 2009 earlier this month, the Cougars, who finished the season ranked eighth in the province among Tier I teams, knew that they would be in tough to continue their winning ways this week as they prepared to do battle with a Titans team that boasted a staggering 9-1 record.
But in football, as in most sports, the only thing that matters is what happens on game day.
And on that wet, cold night in Lacombe, the ‘Dame boys were the better team.
“We prepped hard this week, again, like we always do. The kids are starting to believe in themselves,” Castellan said.
It didn’t take the Cougars long to get their prolific offense going and draw first blood.
Less than five minutes into the game runningback Payton LaGrange punched in the game’s first major from the one-yard line to give his team an early 7-0 lead and they never looked back from there.
The lightning fast running back led his team with a pair of touchdowns in the contest and said he has to give a lot of credit to the team’s offensive line for his individual success.
“It’s all behind those hoggies, man. I wouldn’t be able to get in there without those big boys,” said LaGrange, adding that his entire team contributed in the win.
“We knew our assignments and every man did their job. We shut down their big players and came out with the victory.”
Defensively, the home team was lights out as well, cutting off the Titans’ speed and limiting their chances in the red zone to help secure the victory.
Leading the way was deep defensive back Beko Wande, who had two interceptions and a whole whack of pass defences, which helped the Cougars effectively eliminate Harry Ainlay’s ability to make big-yardage passes.
“He’s in the right place in the right time. He made great reads through the whole game. He was in the right position at the right time and made the play. He’s a helluva player,” LaGrange said of his teammate, adding that the Cougars’ coaching staff did a great job of calling the right plays as well.
“It’s a big part of getting them second-and-long and then we have them right where we want them. It’s all about strategy and game plan. Our coaches put us in the right position and we executed and made the plays when we had to.”
Now the Red Deer squad’s attention turns to preparing for their North Region Final game against the top-ranked team in the province, the Bev Facey Falcons.
It will be the first time that a Central Alberta team has played in a provincial regional final game since 1995, when the Linday Thurber Raiders went to the Tier II Alberta Bowl.
“It’s huge for Central Alberta and put this City on the map. We’re coming, we’ve got momentum and it’s going to be good,” LaGrange said.
Meanwhile, the Hunting Hills High School Lightning is also heading to Regional finals after defeating the Robert Thirsk Comets 28-25 in the Tier II Regional semi-final earlier on Saturday.
Both the Cougars and Lightning will be back in action next Saturday, with Notre Dame travelling to Edmonton to take on the Falcons at Clarke Stadium at 2:30 p.m. and the Lightning travelling to Okotoks to face off with the Foothills Falcons at Foothills Stadium beginning at 1 p.m.