It either will be a case of a lesson learned or school’s out until next fall.
The Muskie football team hopes one more week of preparation will make the difference when it gets another shot at the St. Norbert Celtics this Friday in Winnipeg in the quarter-finals.
St. Norbert dumped the visiting Muskies 27-6 in the regular-season finale last Friday, with both teams ending up at 2-4 and in a five-way tie for sixth place in the Currie Division (‘A’).
With the top four teams moving on to a cross-over playoff with the bottom four teams in the Vidruk Division (‘AA’), the fifth-place Portage Collegiate Institute Trojans (3-3) and the Maples Marauders, who also finished at 2-4 but wound up in sixth place due to a tie-breaker, have a first-round bye in the newly-created 4th Division playoffs.
The winner between the Muskies and Celtics will face PCI in the semi-finals next week, but Muskie head coach Mike Cuzzolino still is trying to figure out what happened this past Friday.
“We are so much better than what we’ve shown these last two weeks,” Cuzzolino said about the losses to the Marauders and Celtics that left Fort High on a three-game skid to end the regular season.
“The guys are very disappointed but looking forward to the rematch this week,” he noted.
The Muskies were knocked back on their heels early Friday when a Brandon Whitecrow pass deflected off the hands of Cole Kowalski and was returned by a Celtics’ defender for a “pick-six” on the first opening possession of the game.
St. Norbert struck again later in the first quarter on a sweep that ended up reaching the Muskie end zone to make it 14-0.
“That just put us in a big hole and the guys were kind of out of it,” Cuzzolino recalled.
Later in the half, Whitecrow and Kowalski teamed up for a 55-yard play-action pass for a touchdown to make it 14-6.
Substitute kicker Dylan Ossachuk, filling in for the injured Cam Lidkea (unspecified), had his point after attempt blocked.
But the Celtics scored on another long run to lead 20-6 at halftime (the convert was blocked).
St. Norbert then took the ball on its first possession of the second half and promptly marched down the field, capping the drive with a three-yard scoring run.
Both teams’ defences took over from there, not allowing much in the way of offensive production—something the Muskies could have used.
“Our offensive line struggled again this week and had trouble sustaining blocks and picking up blitzes,” noted Cuzzolino.
“We only execute once every three plays on offence and we rely too much on big plays,” he added.
Cuzzolino believes his team is in a great position to win it all.
“But they need to believe in themselves and we need to do fundamentals well,” he stressed.
“Fundamentals win championships. Blocking and tackling have to be superb.”
Kowalski, who finished the day with five catches for 140 yards, ended the regular season leading the entire WHSFL in receiving yardage (526) and touchdown catches (seven).
Whitecrow, meanwhile, went 8-for-15 for 156 yards and three interceptions—two of which went off the intended target’s hands.
The second-year pivot wound up second in the Currie Division in touchdown passes (eight) and third in completions (48) and passing yardage (913), but also first in interceptions (nine).
“Brandon needs to take some off of his throws,” said Cuzzolino.
“Every throw doesn’t need to be a laser.”
As for the Muskies’ rushing attack, it mostly was stymied throughout the game, with Sekina Scheibler being the top ground gainer with only 43 yards on 12 carries.
On the other side of the ball, Muskie linebacker Kenton Bowles had 15 tackles in the game and finished the season with 56—more than any other player in the WHSFL.
The Muskies go into Friday’s quarter-final dealing with an assortment of injuries—the latest a key one to leading punt and kick-off returner Dougie deBernardeaux.
After being named the division’s special teams player-of-the-week for the second time in three weeks, deBernardeaux had to leave in the second half of Friday’s game against St. Norbert with a possible concussion.
His status for this Friday’s game remains unknown.
Out of the lineup right now are receiver Matt Booth (collarbone) and defensive backs Matt Hill (collarbone) and Isaac Smith (hand).
Wide receiver Jake Clendenning was sick and missed last Friday’s game, but hopefully will be back for the quarter-finals.
The same goes for defensive back Nolin Spuzak and nose tackle Mackenzie Flamand, with both missing this past Friday due to academic obligations.
Flamand also is battling a foot injury.
Still, Cuzzolino has faith his team will live to play again this season after this Friday’s showdown.
“We know what they’re about,” he said of the Celtics. “[And] we know we didn’t even play close to what we’re capable of [last Friday].
“We have to believe in ourselves,” Cuzzolino stressed.
“This Muskie team is loaded with talent. We just need to execute all four quarters.
“Our defence was lights-out incredible after that third-quarter touchdown,” Cuzzolino noted.
“We need that the whole game,” he said. “And we need our offensive line to play the way we know they can.
“We’ll make some adjustments this week and we’ll be a much better team this Friday,” he pledged.
“St. Norbert’s is a good team,” Cuzzolino said. “We respect them but we don’t fear them.
“If we execute the way I know we can, if we do the fundamentals well, this Muskie team is unstoppable.
“They need to believe in themselves,” he reiterated.
The other 4th Division quarter-final will pit Neelin against Daniel McIntyre, with that winner meeting Maples in the semi-finals.