By CLAUDE SCILLEY
NAPANEE, Nov. 3—If they made postcards for high school football games, they’d have made one here today.
It was a day with all the traditional trappings: brilliant sunshine, a sky almost as blue as one of the home team’s colours, with leaves on the maple trees at the west end of the field resplendently gold, as if in tribute to the other. For goodness sake, there were even cheerleaders on the sideline, doing—like they almost never seem to do anymore—leading cheers.
On such a day, it seems fitting that a coach would draw upon a tried-and-true method of inspiring his players. To put the final piece in the stereotypical picture, it worked, and the home team won.
Playing a superb game from start to finish, the Napanee Golden Hawks defeated the Ernestown Eagles 30-7 in a Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association senior AA semifinal game.
The win puts Napanee into the county AA final Saturday at Loyalist Collegiate, where the Hawks will face the undefeated regular-season champion La Salle Black Knights, who beat the Sydenham Golden Eagles 17-1 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
It was as close to idyllic as a high school football game can get for the Hawks, who scored four touchdowns four different ways—getting one by pass, another by rush, one from a turnover and another from a kick return. You simply couldn’t make that up.
When something like that happens, you certainly can’t dismiss what Napanee coach Corey Bowen did before the game: he gathered his players in the school gymnasium and invited them to look around.
“One thing that got me, (from the time) I came over here, is there’s no senior football banner in that gym,” he said, referring to the pennants that hang on the wall commemorating championships school teams have won.
“I sat them down and made them look up and they saw the junior one but there’s no senior one. I told them that’s on them; they can have one there, knowing that they’re the reasons that banner goes up, and that’s something they’ll be able to celebrate.”
It can’t possibly be a cliche when a team comes out and plays as inspired a game as the Hawks did.
“Now that we’ve got that game over, I said to them it’s up to them whether it says ‘finalist’ or ‘champions’ on it,” Bowen said. “We’ll leave that to them.”
Bowen’s pre-game ploy might even be considered genius if all it did was give his players the wherewithal to overcome the first big play of the game. Coming midway through the first quarter, it began with a deep pass by Ernestown quarterback Wiley Taylor that was tipped by a Napanee defender. It went into the arms of Eagles receiver Noah Baird, who was beyond the coverage. Baird took it the remainder of the 80 yards necessary for the game’s first touchdown.
It was typical for a Napanee team to which the first quarter has not been kind. “I was concerned,” Bowen said. “I was hoping that it wasn’t going to break the guys’ hearts to see that happen.”
Turns out, he needn’t have worried. On the subsequent kickoff, Nick Nieman returned the ball 90 yards for a touchdown that tied the score. “That got the guys going,” Bowen said. Then, for good measure, Ernestown fumbled the kickoff following that score, and Liam Maracle took it about 45 yards to the end zone, giving Napanee a 14-7 lead.
“That gave our guys a lot of confidence,” Bowen said, “knowing that we could actually win this game.”
Down the sideline, however, the Eagles, who had about a minute to savour what turned out to be the only good thing to happen to them in the game, were gobsmacked.
“After that,” coach Lou Bilkovski said, “the football gods weren’t with us, because anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong for us.”
Ernestown put a good march together early in the second quarter, but Napanee’s Ryan Weaver ended it with an interception in the end zone. He took it 111 yards down the sideline for an apparent score, but it was called back by an illegal block, a needless one that came with Weaver just 10 yards from the Eagles’ end zone.
That led to an 18-yard field goal by Liam Wheeler, and, after Ernestown failed to extend the following drive, Maracle blocked the punt and took it to the Eagles’ 43-yard line. The key play on the ensuing drive was a 20-yard pass completion on third-and-seven, from quarterback Jake Morrow to Maracle. With less than two minutes to halftime, the two connected again from there for a touchdown.
In the third quarter, another interception, this one by Kendall Yach, set up a 12-yard touchdown run by Colson Bertrand that made the score 30-7 in Napanee’s favour.
“Napanee played very well; they played disciplined football,” Bilkovski said. “It was just one of those games. All through the game, I’m going, ‘Wow, we can’t cut one break here,’ but that happens. There have been other times when we’ve had wins where everything went our way.
“This wasn’t our day.”
For Bowen, the most gratifying part of the victory was the consistent play his team displayed throughout.
“We have definitely struggled in the first half in the first six games, but they’re never willing to give up,” he said. “To be able to watch them play four quarters of solid football, as a coach, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Morrow, who took over from Nieman at quarterback for the Hawks’ regular-season game with Regi, got the nod for yesterday’s game.
“I’m not the sort of coach that’s going to stand by and watch us get beat and not change anything,” said Bowen, whose team had lost three in a row going into Tuesday's match. “When I feel the time is right, I’ll change it up. I have three very competent quarterbacks who can all play that position. It’s a great asset.
“We went back to the original guy who, I think, throws a better ball. He’s in Grade 12 and I felt I was able to hang our hat on him to win one at home. My old quarterback, Nick Nieman, as you saw on the punt-return touchdown, he’s got amazing speed. He’s got a great height and between him and Liam Maracle, they’re very hard to tackle. That’s the reason we went (the way we did).”
The Hawks had managed to score just 15 points in the three games since their last win, a 23-19 come-from-behind victory over Ernestown Oct. 8. It puts them into a championship game with La Salle, a team that defeated Napanee 23-1 in their regular-season contest, two weeks ago at Napanee.
Defeating La Salle will be a tall order for the Hawks, who were nonetheless one of just two teams in the league this year to score a touchdown against the Knights, who Tuesday stretched their season-long winning streak to seven games. La Salle has posted a pair of shutouts this year, twice allowed an opponent just a single point, and once just to kick a field goal. In their other two games the Knights allowed a touchdown, but in neither did they permit anybody to score more than one.
Saturday’s game is scheduled for 1 p.m.
The final game of the KASSAA regular season will be played Thursday at 2 o’clock, when Holy Cross, 2-3, visits Frontenac, 4-1. The outcome is largely moot, since it’s already been determined the two teams will meet again in the AAA semifinal Tuesday, Nov. 10, to identify who will face Regi for the triple-A championship Saturday, Nov. 14.