For the sixth straight year a GW Graham football team will play under the dome at B.C. Place Stadium.
The Grizzlies gutted out a 21-7 win over the Argyle Pipers in a senior varsity playoff quarter-final Friday night at Exhibition Stadium. They will travel into the city next weekend to face either the Windsor Dukes (North Vancouver) or Clarence Fulton Maroons (Vernon), with the winner advancing to the AA provincial championship game.
Grizzlies coach Laurie Smith was all smiles after the Argyle win as he talked about a team that has defied expectations, or rather the lack of expectations.
“For this team to be in the Final Four is a really special thing,” Smith explained. “All the pre-season chatter was about us losing the O-Line that carried us the last few years, and what a big hit that would be.
“Most of this team, two years ago in junior varsity didn’t even make the playoffs, so to be here now among the top four teams in the province is really special.”
The Pipers were far from an easy out.
GW Graham handled the North Vancouverites easily in the preseason with a 35-12 win, but that team was missing a handful of key players. This Argyle squad was fully loaded with star players on both sides of the ball.
The teams played to a 7-7 draw at half-time, with the visitors arguably the better team.
Argyle focused their defensive efforts on GWG running back Von Richardson, to great effect. Used to slicing and dicing defenses, No. 3 in blue had to scratch and claw for every yard he got, harrassed at every turn by six-foot-three Piper lineman Jacob Green.
For most of the night, Green was more than the Grizzly O-line could handle, a disruptive force and tone-setter for the Argyle D.
“We’ve kind of lived off him (Richardson) running the ball all year, so it was nerve-wracking in the first half,” GW Graham’s Jesse Hough admitted. “But we had some other guys step up with big plays and we won the game.”
It was GWG opening the scoring in the first quarter with a grinding 11 play drive that included eight Richardson runs. The Grizzlies mixed it up with a couple Dion Kelly jet sweeps, and quarterback Bentley Thomas scampered for 13. Otherwise it was Richardson pounding into the Argyle wall time after time after time until finally he rumbled into the end-zone from four yards out.
The Pipers answered that with a 10 play drive of their own, capped by a 20 yard touchdown pass for Argyle’s only major of the game.
Teams know by now that it is very difficult to have a ground game against the GWG D. With defensive linemen Cooper Middleton, Jake Troyan, Justin Hopwood, Colin Campbell backed by run stuffing linebackers Richardson and Daniel Santos, there’s often little room to run, so Argyle barely tried. Lightning quick running back Ryan Agyagos burned GWG with the occasional outside run, but most of the Piper damage came from the arm of quarterback Mac Ward and receivers Devin O’Hea, Josh Krieger and six-foot-six Anton Mellinghaus. Argyle moved the ball well all night, dissecting the Grizzly D with short and mid-range passes.
“They were tough, probably tougher than we expected,” Smith said. “They had a nice plan tonight with all those medium routes, those outs and curls and stuff. It was nuts, but our defence came up big in the red-zone a few times.”
“Argyle played a heckuva game.”
The GW Graham played bend-but-don’t-break to perfection and won the turnover battle.
Defensive back Alex Whitehead came up with two interceptions and Dion Kelly produced a third, ripping the ball out of the arms of a Piper receiver. It was a Whitehead pick that led to the Grizzlies go-head touchdown early in the third quarter, as the DB went airborne to pull down a ball at the Argyle 45 yard line.
Five runs by Richardson, including a 10-yard rumble on a fourth-and-one gamble, had GWG down to the 11 yard line before three negative plays pushed them back to the 26. That set the stage for the most memorable play of the night, and perhaps the most memorable play of the season, produced by Jesse Hough.
Thomas dropped back to pass and fired a bullet to Hough around the 10 yard line.
From there, No. 21 in blue refused to go down, knocking defenders away like bowling pins as he made his way into the end-zone.
“I was brought in at tight end and the plan was to fake the handoff to Von,” Hough recalled. “Bentley (Thomas) dropped back and delivered a beautiful ball down the seam. I caught it, turned around, saw their best player coming at me (No. 13, Devin O’Hea) and knew I had to make a play.”
That he did as the bench erupted in calls of ‘J-Hough!’
Argyle threatened to answer back on their next series, starting at their own 35 yard line and marching deep into GWG territory. But eventually a pair of false-start penalties had them facing a fourth-and-16. Ward sailed a pass down the left sideline, and Grizz safety Jacob Penner flew across the field to swat the ball away.
With a chance to put the game away the GW Graham offence produced a nine-play drive that ended with a 15 yard Richardson TD rumble, but that play wouldn’t have been possible without two before it. Hough kept the drive alive with a key catch of a Thomas pass on a fourth-and-five gamble.
Three plays later, Richardson crashed through the Argyle line and had the ball punched loose by a Piper defender. Center Jake Troyan calmly fell on the fumble to keep the drive alive and celebrated one play later as Richardson scored.
Hough caught the two-point convert pass from Thomas to put his team up 21-7.
Two defensive stops later the Grizzlies celebrated a hard-fought win and started making travel plans.
“I never get bored with B.C. Place Stadium,” said Hough, a fifth-year player who has made four previous trips to the dome. “The first time was unreal, playing in a stadium I grew up watching the B.C. Lions play in.
“Each time since it’s still exciting.”