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Eagles capture Ernestown's first football championship
Posted: November 3rd, 2013 @ 11:45pm
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It's like they've been saying, 'It's time' for a couple of weeks now, but when you're a 1-5 football team, it's difficult to get people's attention. On Sunday, the Ernestown Eagles made people listen.
In the six years since the creation of a team in 2008, success has escaped the Eagles who, until their stirring 14-7 overtime win over the La Salle Black Knights in the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association senior AA championship game, hadn't won much of anything. A game here and a game there and, of course, moral victories by the bushel.
Everybody had kind words for Ernestown - after they beat them. A game bunch, they'd say. Lots of heart. Played to the end. Give 'em a pat on the back. The platitudes flowed but when it came right down to it, as good-looking football teams went, the Eagles had a nice personality. They were the Miss Congeniality of KASSAA.
This year wasn't much different, as Ernestown won just one of its regular-season games, and that was against a team that didn't beat anybody all year. Looking at the form chart, though, there was a clue that would have given a savvy oddsmaker pause.
It was in the final game of the regular year, against Sydenham, a school that sets the gold standard for athletics, especially football, for small, rural schools - like Ernestown. The upstart Eagles led 21-10 going into the fourth quarter and they could almost taste what for them would be a landmark victory over an established team, but it wasn't to be. Sydenham scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and a touchdown in the final minute sent Ernestown to yet another defeat.
Another round of kudos, though, for those intrepid guys, all 21 of them. Or some days 19. One sad afternoon, in addition to the 12 on the field, by the end of the game there were five healthy players on the sideline to give respite. How's that compare? Frontenac dressed 47 players for its championship game Sunday, same as university teams do.
A plucky bunch, these Eagles, gritty, gutsy.
How they must have come to hate those adjectives.
They're still all of those things but today, they're more palatable because they define a champion, and that may be what pleases coach Lou Bilkovski the most.
After that Sydenham game he implored his players to understand what an achievement it was, even in defeat, and the message appears to have resonated. There followed a solid, methodical win over Bayridge in the AA semifinal and Sunday, the Eagles survived four potentially disastrous moments without a scratch to win the school's first football title. The catharsis seems to be complete.
"Ever since the Sydenham game - it's just kept building and building," Bilkovski said. "The guys are gaining more and more confidence. It's just been terrific."
Consider that Ernestown fumbled a punt in the second quarter Sunday, right after the Eagles scored to the tie game and then stopped La Salle, two plays and out, on the very next drive. That would deflate anybody's balloon. There were two more fumbles in the third quarter, one on Ernestown's side of midfield, another that killed a 76-yard drive at the La Salle 14-yard line.
In the fourth quarter, with Ernestown poised to punt for a go-ahead single from the La Salle 25, the kick was blocked.
The old, polite Eagles by now certainly would have thrown up their hands and said, 'OK, boys, we gave it shot, it's not meant to be. There's only 19 of us, you know, and what business do we have thinking we can win in this league, anyway?'
That wasn't the Ernestown team that showed up at Richardson Stadium Sunday. Even when La Salle scored its touchdown, the Eagles took just 70 seconds to answer with a touchdown of their own. Take that, they were saying to a team that beat them by 20 points just a fortnight ago.
"There was a point," Bilkovski said, "when they scored and a few of our heads hung but they came back and didn't let anything stop them. That has been different than our first three games, when guys would get down on themselves.
"They're really believing in themselves and each other."
It's a message Bilkovski and his fellow coaches have preached since the start of the term.
"Set your standards high," he said. "Don't set them low. There's no guarantees here but good things happen. Right after Sydenham, that's when it hit home with them, that, look, when you can play with a team like that and do that well, that has to tell you that we can play with everybody.
"These are the things that we would keep talking about - but the kids have to experience it and see it for themselves rather than just always (hearing us say) it."
Bilkovski means it, too, and if the players didn't get that message then, they've got it now.
"I said to them right at the start of the season: This is great that we have a football program but you know what? Either we go after this or we don't. We never used the excuse of 19 players. I said don't ever use that. I don't want us thinking like that. Let's just go and play as hard as we can and see where the chips fall. I put it to the guys whether we should play triple-A or double-A. I knew we only had 19 players but I put it to them. They said no, we'll stick with double-A, and they knew I was disappointed because I want them to strive.
"They see it now. I've already told them as long as I'm coaching here we're going to be looking at triple-A. We're going after a dream. There's no guarantees we'll get it and it's hard to compete with the bigger schools but - I don't think a football program can grow if we look at ourselves as, 'Well we're a small school' and we give excuses why we can't accomplish something."
After a scoreless first quarter Sunday, La Salle smartly executed an eight-play, 63-yard drive for the game's first score, a five-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tim Wight early in the second quarter. Little did anyone suspect that for a team that was 4-2 in the regular year, that one drive ultimately would account for 43 per cent of their total offence for the game.
Two plays after the ensuing La Salle kickoff, Konner Burtenshaw scored on a 48-yard run to tie the game.
After that La Salle scrimmaged on Ernestown's side of midfield just twice, and had just 49 net yards of offence in the second half. The Eagles had more possession time and ran more plays, but they couldn't score, either.
Ernestown had the first possession in overtime and on its first play, Burtenshaw swept right and broke away down the sideline for a run that ended 35 yards later in the end zone. La Salle managed two yards in three plays when it got the ball and the game was over.
In seven carries, Burtenshaw, who actually played more on defence than he did on offence, rushed for 127 yards. He was named the game's most valuable player, winner of the Wayne Norris Memorial trophy.
"Once he gets going and turns the corner, he is very difficult to stop," Bilkovski said. He's an extremely quick and powerful runner, an all-around tough kid.
"Some of the plays we call we're hoping for five yards and he gives us 40."
By the way, did we mention that two of the aforementioned fumbles were by Burtenshaw, and the third came when he and quarterback Josh Campbell botched a handoff? Or that on the very next play after one of his fumbles, Burtenshaw took out his frustration on the facemask of a La Salle player he was tackling, thereby drawing a major foul?
Such faux pas, it seems, only seem to drive Burtenshaw to make amends.
"Konner is that type of player," Bilkovski said. "When he gets upset, it is a catalyst for him. I've gotten mad at him at practice once and all of a sudden I see a whole different attitude, for the better, even though he's upset. He really responds to that."
The coach said it was never necessary to have one of those conversations with Burtenshaw on Sunday. "No one was upset with him," he said. "Those things do happen. We know (wanting to atone for mistakes) motivates him even more.
"I know where his heart is. The whole team knows where his heart is."
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