By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Corey Bowen isn’t about to get too far ahead of himself.
“To be able to come out against a quality side like Sydenham, and to squeak through with a win, is only going to boost their confidence for the rest of the year,” Bowen, coach of the Napanee Golden Hawks, said of his players Wednesday afternoon after his team defeated the defending champion Sydenham Golden Eagles 13-10 to open the senior high school football season.
“To say that we’re where we want to be, I’d say we’re not there yet. We’ve got a lot to learn, and a lot of things to do.
“We’ve got a huge game next week against Frontenac, who have always been the top dogs. Next week’s game is really going to show us where we stand.”
For now, Napanee stands much higher in the estimation of people throughout the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association. For a long time, only the very best have been able to defeat the Golden Eagles, a perennially strong team that last year won the regional National Capital Bowl championship.
It’s been just about as long a time since people considered Napanee to be one of those teams.
Under a cloudless blue sky, the Golden Hawks prevailed Wednesday though they gave up the game’s first score, a four-yard pass completion into the end zone from Kyle Compton to Merik Wilcock, a play that capped a scoring drive of about 60 yards. From the ensuing kickoff, Napanee drove deep into Sydenham territory, the big play coming when quarterback Nick Martin connected with Quinton Walters on a 35-yard pass that set the Golden Hawks up on the visitors’ 10-yard line.
A pass interference penalty gave Napanee first down at the Sydenham two, but it took second effort on third down by Liam Maracle, by now playing quarterback, to get the Hawks into the end zone.
Napanee’s big break in the game came when rookie Sydenham kicker Dylan Hutchinson shanked a punt shortly before halftime. From the left hash mark, the ball passed the line of scrimmage by less than a dozen yards, well behind the downfield coverage, near the sideline to Hutchison's right.
Napanee’s Bryan Weaver alertly closed in on the ball, took it on a bounce, and dashed 75 yards down the sideline untouched for the go-ahead touchdown.
Hutchinson later made amends by kicking a 12-yard field goal early in the third quarter, but Sydenham couldn’t mount a comeback beyond that, largely due to its own mistakes.
First came an interception by Napanee’s Curtis Lambert early in the fourth quarter, and then Martin stripped the ball from a Sydenham punt returner near midfield and then recovered it with about three minutes to play.
Napanee couldn’t capitalize on either turnover, however the Hawks were able to pin Sydenham on its own one-yard line to start what became its final possession with 63 seconds to play. The drive didn’t last long, however, as Napanee’s Jake Morrow intercepted a Compton pass on a play that allowed the Hawks to run out the clock.
Bowen was a member of the coaching staff when underdog Ernestown won that school’s first Kingston Area championship two years ago. He came to Napanee, he said, for the sole purpose of resurrecting a dormant senior team.
Last year he coached the juniors, who had moderate success. Napanee fielded a senior team after a one-year hiatus but it didn’t win a game.
On Wednesday, Bowen was particularly pleased with the play of his linemen.
“We had about seven guys changing between (offensive) line and (defensive) line and they never gave up,” he said. “It (shows) with the guys’ heart and how strong they are as a group, that they want to play together.
“We’re not going to go anywhere as individuals; if we stick together as a team, even though we’ve got just 25, 26 guys (we’ll succeed) … our group is strong and that’s what got us over the line today.”
Of course, this year’s edition of the Sydenham senior football team bears little resemblance to the group that was undefeated in 2014: only 12 players return, only eight of whom were starters a year ago. “It’s a pretty significant turnover,” Eagles coach Mike Love allows, particularly in the skill positions where among the graduates are quarterback Dylan Fisher, receivers Sam Moyse, Mike Bashall and Curtis MacComish and running back Brodie Latimer.
“We’re going from Dylan, who was a mature kid in full control of everything he was doing, to a rookie who was probably a little nervous,” said Love, whose team numbers just 32 players this year. “We have low numbers, a couple of injuries—the same problems a lot of schools have.
“It’s a young team, but we have some players. We certainly have athletes, and it’s just a matter of executing better. It’s early; we haven’t had a lot of time to work on stuff … we’re just going to ask them to learn and be better next time.”
Despite his team’s youth, Love said he had been hoping to see them execute a little better than they did.
“I told the kids at halftime this looks like a first game of the year. I don’t think either team was really happy with how the whole thing unfolded. We had some moments of really nice things happening, and we had some big mistakes that ended up costing us some time, some yardage and some opportunities for points.
“We’ve got to clean that stuff up.”
In Wednesday’s other senior contest, a superb defensive performance was the essence of the La Salle Black Knights’ 14-7 victory over the Holy Cross Crusaders.
“Our (defensive) linemen, I asked them all week: take your gaps; don’t let their (offensive linemen) get up on our linebackers, and they did what I asked. Our backers could flow and hit,” said a delighted Knights coach Ruben Brunet. “Holy Cross runs these crossing routes, so we had to make sure that we could let our backers flow.”
The teams traded touchdowns in the first half, with Crusaders quarterback Colin Walker completing a long pass to Brandon Robbins that set them up at the La Salle three-yard line, from where Dawson Reid carried over for the score.
La Salle’s touchdown came on a 90-yard punt return by Denver Stephens. “The blocking was amazing,” Brunet said. “It was so well set up. For this early in the season, I was really pleased with how well it was set up.”
The third quarter started slowly, with the teams trading turnovers (Holy Cross on downs; La Salle on a fumble) and neither team had a first down until Knights quarterback Mitch Dowd, after faking a handoff and then a reverse, found slotback Grant LeGood alone behind the Holy Cross secondary, and hit him with a pass that ended 94 yards later in the end zone at 8:40 of the third quarter.
The Crusaders offence continued to sputter. It wasn’t until they got the ball for their final possession, inside their own five-yard line, that things began to click. In the gloaming at Holy Cross’s Maurice Daniel Field, Walker completed five straight passes, three of them to Devin Leblanc, but on the fifth, receiver Ian McLatchie fumbled at the La Salle 30-yard line, and the Knights recovered the football.
‘We have some kids who have never played offensive line before,” Crusaders coach Tim Pendergast said. “Early on, we were getting sacked more than we were getting rid of the ball. As the game went on, our offensive line started to get better … but La Salle was good. They had a good force unit and they have some good coverage people.”
In games Thursday, the league’s defending triple-A champions, the Frontenac Falcons, will visit the Regiopolis Notre Dame Panthers at 4:45 p.m. and the Ernestown Eagles will entertain the Bayridge Blazers in Odessa at 5 o’clock.