By CLAUDE SCILLEY
BROCKVILLE, Nov. 13—For drama, there’s very little as compelling as a game-tying touchdown drive with less than two minutes to go in a regional playoff game.
Unless, of course, it’s a 70-yard drive in the final 80 seconds to kick the game-winning point.
That all happened Friday, when the La Salle Black Knights staged a stirring fourth-quarter comeback, erasing a 10-point deficit, only to have it vanish when Ty McNish punted through the end zone on the final play of the game to give the Thousand Island Pirates a 28-27 victory in an Eastern Ontario Secondary Schools Athletic Association AA football semifinal.
It was the first time a team from eastern Ontario has eliminated a Kingston Area champion from regional competition.
The Pirates will advance to meet the Arnprior Redmen in the EOSSAA final Nov. 21 in Arnprior. The Redmen defeated St. John of Perth 17-7 in Friday’s other semifinal.
On a windy, drizzly day on a field rendered swamp-like in places—with patches of standing water and loose turf dotting a generally slick and greasy field—it took a while for either team to get going. Then a couple of explosion plays in rapid succession put the Knights in trouble.
First, Thousand Islands quarterback Nick Gilbert found Ty McNish behind the La Salle secondary and the play went 80 yards for a touchdown. The Knights then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Pirates recovered the ball, starting a drive at the La Salle 49-yard line that ended five plays later when Gilbert turned a broken play, a good downfield block and some poor La Salle tackling into a 35-yard touchdown run.
The Knights quickly collected themselves, however, and scored on the subsequent possession, a six-play, 70-yard drive that featured a 31-yard pass from quarterback Mitch Dowd to Denver Stevens that took La Salle to the Thousand Islands 10-yard line. On the next play, Dowd found Stevens again, just across the goal line, to make the score 13-8.
Late in the second quarter, Dowd likewise found Grant LeGood on consecutive plays, a 27-yard completion setting up a nine-yard thouchdown toss that gave the Knights a 15-13 advantage they took into the break.
Around those successful drives, however, were two the Knights came to regret. Between the two scores, La Salle moved the ball from the Thousand Islands 45-yard line, twice successfully converting third-down gambles, but fate failed them the third time, when the Knights turned the ball over at the 20 after a third-and-10 pass was by Dowd was dropped.
Then, in the dying seconds of the first half, La Salle forced a turnover on downs and took the ball at the Thousand Islands’ 30. Penalties on consecutive plays, one for pass interference, and the other for unnecessary roughness when the Pirates big defensive end Densel Guirandou creamed Dowd, put the ball on the one-yard line, with time left for one play.
Dowd kept the ball, but his bid to squeeze straight ahead into the end zone was denied.
“If we take points there, you never know,” Knights coach Reuben Brunet said, identifying that as the important play in the ball game. “We went for it all. We didn’t get it.”
The Knights at first appeared that they would be content for the chip-shot field goal, but when Brunet saw the ball on the one-yard line, he said there was no question what he would do, and he would do it again every time. “A quarterback sneak in Canadian football? If you can’t get a yard on a quarterback sneak …” he said, his voice trailed off.
The only scores in the third quarter were another long run by the quarterback Gilbert, this one of 57 yards, a terrific piece of open-field running where he appeared to be the only player on the field capable of finding traction, and a La Salle safety sent the teams into the fourth quarter with Thousand Islands holding a 20-17 lead. That cushion grew to 10 points shortly afterward, when Gilbert escaped the pocket to find Chris Row near the right sideline.
A La Salle defender, no doubt seeing a clear field in front of him, went for the interception but he arrived just a hair late and after he caught the ball, Row had little difficulty navigating 45 yards for a touchdown.
A 16-yard field goal by La Salle’s Shawn Miller cut the deficit to seven points, and then the adventure began.
First the Knights held Thousand Islands and forced a punt, but the ball was fumbled and it appeared the Pirates would recover. The ball squirted through the grasp of one Pirate, however, and as the players writhed on the slippery turf and the ball refused to behave, La Salle’s Mo Abdul finally came up with it. A 15-yard penalty against Thousand Islands gave the Knights the football at their own 42 as the two-minute warning was whistled.
Dowd, who ended the day 16-for-24—completing 10 of his last 11 passes—was at his best. He completed four straight throws, moving his team to the TISS 37-yard line. This time, it was Tim Wight’s turn to make some would-be tacklers miss, and he scored from there. La Salle opted for the single-point convert, with an eye to sending the game to overtime, and Miller delivered, tying the game, with a little more than a minute to play.
From their own 40, the Pirates embarked on a march that belied the conditions. It took them six plays, including a 35-yard completion from Gilbert to McNish, and a 10-yard run for first down by Gilbert on the same bootleg play that generated one of his touchdowns. There were three seconds left, and McNish came on to kick the ball through the end zone for the game-winning point, with the wind at his back from the five-yard line.
La Salle didn’t put a man in the end zone to return a failed attempt—or possibly even kick the ball back out—instead putting all its eggs in the basket of blocking the punt, but McNish got it away without a scratch.
Pirates coach Rick Miles said the rouge single was on his mind from the start of the decisive drive. McNish is capable of punting the ball 50 yards, he said, but that still meant the team needed to be closer.
“We went into jumbo first,” Miles said, “and the thought was, OK, if we can get a first down, then we’d go into spread—get five yards at a time, and don’t panic. A minute and 20 seconds in Canadian football (is plenty of time).”
Thousand Islands still had both of its timeouts remaining, and Miles used them, first before the run by Gilbert to the La Salle five, and then on the play afterwards. From the 20, McNish was close to his range for kicking it through the end zone, but the Pirates wanted one more play.
“Nick says ‘a power off-tackle; let’s do this.’ The right side was packed really tight. He bootlegs outside and we almost thought he was going to score. That was when I thought, ‘OK, that’s enough; let’s kick it through the end zone.”
When the players came to the sideline the second time, Miles was astonished. “What I wanted to do was set them up to punt, but I couldn’t believe the guys stepping up: ‘We want this more than they do.’”
That left just one more heart attack for Miles to avoid. “Everybody’s coming to block, (the kick)” he said, “but he got it away quick—almost too quick.
“Ty has to slow down his cadence a little bit. Our guys were still getting set when he goes, ‘Go!’ and we’re, like, ‘Uh-oh,’ but he was ready.”
Gilbert was the story of the day. In addition to the two touchdown passes he threw, he scored two by himself and finished the day with 136 yards rushing and 211 yards passing.
“We have just an awesome quarterback,” Miles said. “You hate to give kids too much ink but, let’s face it, he’s our best player and in the end he was the best player on the field (today). No matter what they did, he just found a way.”
There was no argument from Brunet on that score—“god, what an athlete; can he run”—and he did lament the fact his team appeared to have more difficulty coping with the conditions than his opponent. Poor tackling was a problem all day, and the Knights fumbled five times, though they lost the ball on just one of them.
“I don’t know if we had the right cleats on or not,” Brunet said. “They didn’t seem to fall down as much as we did.”
The fact that no Kingston school had ever lost to TISS wasn’t a factor, he said, though if overconfidence did enter the equation, it may have only been stoked by the apparent ease with which the Knights twice came back, to erase deficits of 11 and 10 points.
“We knew they were a good ball club,” Brunet said. “We saw them on film. We thought they’d compete. We figured it would be tight—though not that tight—but my hat’s off to them. They needed a 50-, 60-yard drive with a minute 15 left and they did it. That’s good football.
Of his players, there’s not one thing Brunet said he’d criticize.
“We all came to play our hearts out,” he said, “and we played our hearts out.”