Early in the second quarter of Saturday morning’s provincial Grade 8 football final, the GW Graham Grizzlies lined up for a two point convert.
With a chance to take a 14-6 lead on the Notre Dame Jugglers, Ethan Mastin took the ball and plowed up the middle. Legs churning, he got to the goal-line, but couldn’t shove his way in.
As the whistle blew and the referee made the sign for no-go, GWG offensive line coach Luke Acheson was heard on the sideline saying, ‘Cmon guys! We need those.’
By game’s end, a two-point convert either way was the difference, with Notre Dame taking a 28-26 win at B.C. Place Stadium.
For the third week in a row, the first-year Grizzlies stood toe-to-toe with a AAA heavyweight.
Offensively, the Grizzlies were almost unstoppable, except on those two point converts.
Mastin picked up one touchdown and GWG’s only successful convert on tough runs up the gut, while Gabe Mannes stretched the field with off-tackle scampers. Emilio Pineda, who got the nod as the game’s most outstanding offensive player, rolled up 179 yards on 22 carries.
“It was nerve-wracking and exciting and a great opportunity. It’s so much hard work to get here, and then you lose and it feels like it was all for nothing,” he said. “But it wasn’t all for nothing. It doesn’t feel great losing, but it’s a part of life.
Pineda had two touchdowns, including the play of the game. On a third-and-three late in the first quarter, he burst up the middle for a beautiful 60 yard TD run.
“My blockers cleared everyone out, except one guy that was hanging on to me,” Pineda said. “I shook him off and kept running as fast as I could.”
GWG might have passed the ball more had quarterback Wyatt Uzick not gone down with a hip injury late in the first quarter. Uzick limped back onto the field in the second half, and threw a touchdown toss in the third quarter.
Mannes was on the receiving end, alertly hauling in a pass that was tipped by Notre Dame defensive back Joseph Santalucia.
But GWG was never able to fully unleash the spread offence they love so much, sticking instead with the run heavy single-wing formation.
Still, they managed four TDs and one two point convert and had the team in it at the end.
Defensively, the Grizzlies just couldn’t come up with a stop. An Uzick endzone interception thwarted the Jugglers on their first series, and time ran out on Notre Dame in their last series before half-time.
Beyond that, GWG couldn’t get off the field. Every Notre Dame drive was time-consuming, and had the D gasping for air.
“We knew we needed to make a stop, strip the ball or get an interception and we just couldn’t get it done,” said talkative linebacker Miguel Wood, who was awed by the atmosphere inside the 54,000 seat stadium. “I’m always going to remember this feeling of losing, and how much it sucks. And next time we come here, we’re not going to lose.”
The game’s most outstanding player, Juggler QB Steven Moretto, gashed the Grizzlies on the ground. Moretto ran for two majors and threw for another, finding Mauro Giammaria out of the backfield for a five yard score.
Santalucia and Mario Marra provided the lightning and thunder. Santalucia, the speedster, seemed a couple gears faster than the GWG tacklers. When the Grizzlies were thoroughly gassed late in the game, Marra was the battering ram, finishing runs with authority.
Marra had the final Notre Dame TD, scoring on a 10 yard run up the gut early in the fourth quarter.
In the final minute, with GWG desperately needing to get the ball back, it was Moretto applying the dagger with a 10 yard run on third and six.
The Jugglers were able to kill the clock with kneel-downs, ending GWG’s otherwise dream season.
“At the beginning of the season, I don’t think any of us really saw this coming,” said Wood “We thought we might be good in our division, but it wasn’t until we beat Vancouver College that we really believed. We figured if we could knocked off the No. 1 team we could knock off any team.”
The local lads were disappointed afterwards, some even getting a bit teary-eyed.
But this was a first-year AA team that was never supposed to be here. Head coach Laurie Smith said it best in the post game huddle.
“You just came within two points of beating the AAA provincial champions,” he said. “Keep your heads up because you’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”