With 30 seconds left in the game, they finally knew they’d won it.
Working out of the single-wing formation, GW Graham quarterback Jordan Breuker took the snap and followed his blockers to the left. On third and three, he picked up eight. With the Ballenas Whalers out of timeouts and unable to stop the clock, the celebrating began.
Whooping and hollering on the sideline. A bucket of water dumped on the head of coach Laurie Smith. And then the final whistle and history made. Your 2013 provincial junior varsity football champions, the GW Graham Grizzlies.
“I told the kids to appreciate the historical importance of what they did,” Smith said afterwards. “Decades of high school football in Chilliwack and they are the first ever provincial champions. It was really special seeing the faces of kids I have coached since atom. It is great to bring home GW Graham’s first provincial banner in any sport.”
Ballenas didn’t make it easy Saturday morning under the big top at BC Place Stadium. The scrappy squad from Parksville left everything on the field. Every time the Grizzlies looked to be pulling away, they battled back. If Tristan Davis didn’t hustle to nab an onside kick in the final minute… well… who knows?
Neither team could score through one quarter.
The Grizzlies broke the ice early in the second, thanks to Tyler Sprott. Sprott snuffed out a Whaler drive with a leaping interception, setting GWG up at their own 40. On the next play, Breuker found Sprott coming across the middle. Sprott hauled in the pass, and looked to be stopped for a 12 yard gain. But he kept his legs churning, pulling away from the grasp of three would-be Whaler tacklers for another 19 yards.
The drive ended with a 12 yard Spencer Breslin field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Grizzly offence was back in business moments later, when Billy Hanson recovered an onside kick. They looked to be three-and-out when a Breuker pass fell incomplete on third and 10, but a roughing the passer penalty gave them 15 yards and a fresh set of downs. The drive ended with Hanson bulling in from two yards out.
Breslin’s convert made it 10-0, and left Ballenas reeling against the ropes.
But the Whalers wouldn’t backing down. Taking the ball at their own 33 yard line, quarterback Garrin McDonnell found tight end Brendan Harstad on a slant pattern. Harstad rumbled to the GWG nine yard line before they finally got him.
Whaler running back Matt Price took a pitch to the left and scored untouched from five yards out, cutting the deficit to 10-7.
With 3:04 left in the first half, the Grizzlies took the ball at their own 24 yard line.
With Hanson on the sideline stretching out a thigh injury, Tristan Davis came in at running back and immediately carried for 17 yards. A Breuker to Emerson Smith pass got GWG to the Whaler 22, and the drive ended with Breuker running up the gut for a 13 yard score.
His Grizzlies went into halftime with a 16-7 lead.
In the locker room, normally occupied by Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps, head coach Laurie Smith reminded his team that they were 24 minutes from history.
“But you’re going to need to play the second half like you’re behind,” he said.
Ballenas came out of the locker room with that mind-set, playing like a desperate team, and late in the third quarter their punishing running game seemed to be wearing out the Grizzlies. Price, who would have been an easy choice for game MVP had Ballenas won, gashed the GWG D with yardage-chewing runs.
When he scored from four yards out to make it 16-14, and there was a sense the Chilliwackians might be in trouble.
The offence needed to step up.
They needed a score. At minimum, they needed a drive to give the defence a breather. The crucial moment was a third-and-inches from their own 40. Needing to keep the sticks moving, Hanson took a handoff up the middle, and continued 23 yards before the Whalers dragged him down.
On the next play, GWG offensive coordinator Adam Smith dipped into his bag of tricks.
His team had practiced an end-around late in the week, and he picked the perfect time to pull it out. Emerson Smith motioned from left to right. Taking the handoff from Breuker he looked for a running lane.
When he found it, he darted through and was off to the races, scampering 41 yards down the right sideline for what looked to be a back-breaking major.
“The coaches saw a weakness in the defence and added that play late,” Emerson Smith said with a grin. “Tristan (Davis) is a phenomenal blocker. He was playing slotback and he sprung that one. It was all because of him.”
The air sucked out of them, the Whalers were three and out on their next series. When Breuker drove his team inside the Ballenas 10 yard line with just over six minutes remaining, it looked to be game over. But Breuker, who would be named the game MVP, had the ball ripped away from him at the five yard line, giving Ballenas one last chance.
From deep in their own territory, they drove the length of the field.
Facing a make-it-or-die fourth and 10 from the GWG 33, McDonnell bootlegged left and flew down the left sideline for a major. The convert made it 23-20, setting up the most dramatic moment of the season.
Hearts were in throats as McDonnell, also the Ballenas kicker, set up for the onside kick.
“Nerve-wracking,” Smith said to describe the moment. “My heart was pounding. But my heart was pounding the whole game.”
McDonnell put a bit too much boot into it, sending it in a rainbow arc well beyond 10 yards. Retreating with his back to the ball, Davis reached up and hauled it in, a split second before the Whalers arrived. All his team had to do now was make one first down.
And when Breuker did…
“Once I knew we could take a knee and kill the clock, I was so excited,” said Smith, who was named the game’s most outstanding back. “I’m speechless. It’s an amazing feeling. The best feeling in the world.”
Jake Troyan was part of the Grade 8 team that lost by two points to Notre Dame in the provincial final last year.
“Last year there were tears and everyone was kind of sad,” he said. “But we used that loss to our advantage, using that as motivation. We never wanted to have that feeling again. This year, everyone’s got a smile on their face. This is so much better.”
Troyan and his offensive linemates never got much press during the year, but every time Smith or Davis or Hanson or Breuker ripped off a run, it was them paving the way.
“I’d say we’re the closest group of people on this team,” Troyan said. “We always motivate each other. We never put each other down and never give up on each other. We came together in this game, did our jobs, and we won.”
More than any of the Grizzly players or coaches, GWG athletic director Jake Mouritzen was the most nervous guy in the stadium. He spent the game pacing behind the bench, wearing a line in the artificial turf.
When the referee waved his flag to end the game, no one was happier.
The boys presented him with the provincial banner.
“We always joke that I was put on the Earth to win provincial banners, and I’m not letting go of this,” he said, clutching it with a vice-like grip. “But this doesn’t happen without the passion and commitment of coach Laurie Smith and his entire coaching staff. Without the support of Teri Voss and the booster club our student athletes don’t get this amazing opportunity. I’m just proud of everyone in the program.”
— Video courtesy of Bob Fugger