The Muskies saw their hopes for a fifth-straight NorWOSSA title dashed here Saturday afternoon when a last-minute drive for the potential winning score ended with an interception near the Kenora goal line.
The Broncos then ran out the clock to preserve an exciting 20-18 victory in front of a large crowd at Westfort field.
“It was heartbreaking,” lamented defensive back Mark Mercure, a member of the Muskie football team for five years. “I saw four minutes left on the clock and I knew it was going to be a hard finish.”
Head coach Bob Swing noted there wasn’t a whole lot to say in the locker room after the game because it was pretty emotional for the coaches and players alike.
“I told them they played their hearts out and that you don’t measure champions by wins or losses,” Swing said.
“A lot of the times we will do the talk at the beginning of the game,” agreed co-coach Greg Allan. “At the end, we just give them a pat on the back and say that is tough.”
Terry Richards, who had to leave the game due to an ankle injury, was back on sidelines during the fourth quarter, said the loss was a big disappointment all around.
“It’s not a great way to end high school or your [high school] football career,” he remarked.
Bronco head coach Dave Zabloski was quick to applaud the efforts of the Muskie team and coaching staff. “I would like to thank Fort Frances—it was a hell of a game,” he enthused.
The close score surprised many, including Mercure, given the Muskies rolled to lopsided wins in compiling a 5-1 record in NorWOSSA play this season, albeit their lone setback was to Kenora up there.
“I am good about it. It was a shock because I have never lost a Canadian game [in my high school career],” noted Mercure, adding he didn’t play when the Muskies lost to the Broncos due to a broken leg.
Mercure admitted Saturday’s loss was tough to take because he knows the team could have played a little bit better. “It wasn’t that we weren’t executing the plays, they were just stopping us,” he reasoned.
“I am fortunate I will be back next year,” noted Allan. “I firmly believe we are the better team. It was the best game I have seen in a while.
“They really did play hard—my heart goes out to them,” he added. “As a coach, I take credit for a win and as a coach, I have to take credit for a loss.”
Swing said he wasn’t surprised Kenora won because they did a good job. What did surprise him was the little things that happened during the game, like some of the penalties and balls flying over the players’ heads.
“We can’t blame anyone, we just couldn’t get the breaks—we came out strong but they shut us down on offence,” said Mercure. “I am happy with how we played. We didn’t lose it on one big play. We couldn’t get that big play.”
The Muskies scored on their first possession when Adam McTavish booted a field goal for a 3-0 lead. Then still in the first quarter, McTavish scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point to make it 10-zip.
But Kenora came back when quarterback Eric Morris ran into the end zone to cut the lead to 10-7 (Chris Zroback kicked the extra point).
The Broncos got the lone score in the second quarter in the wake of a controversial decision by the Muskies to fake a third-down punt in their own zone.
The attempt failed and Kenora took over on downs. Several plays later, Zroback scampered into the end zone but his extra point try was blocked by Muskie Ryan Calder, leaving the score 13-10 for Kenora at halftime.
The Muskies drew within 13-12 with a safety in the third quarter but Kenora made it 20-12 in the fourth quarter when Morris hit Derrick Schelske for the touchdown (Zroback kicked the extra point).
But the black-and-gold refused to die. With time running out, quarterback Gary Wager led the Muskies downfield and tossed a touchdown pass to McTavish to make it 20-18.
Trailing by two, the Muskies opted to try for the two-point conversion to tie the game but the play never got off the ground when Wager collided with a running back in the backfield.
Still, the Muskies had one more shot at the victory with a final drive with barely a minute left on the clock. But as they were closing in on field goal range, Wager was intercepted by Peter Hertz with 33 ticks left to send the Broncos celebrating.
“Hey four out five isn’t bad,” reasoned Swing. “We will take a break and start getting ready for next year.”
Mercure noted even though the black-and-gold didn’t win, it was good to be able to play a game of football with friends.
“It was good to be able to play with Joe [Sletmoen] because we have played together for five years,” he reasoned. “I am also happy with Swinger—he let me get in there when I wanted to.”
Mercure said Swing could only say good things afterwards in the locker room. “He said at the end of the game he couldn’t say anything bad because we all played our hearts out,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, Swing is confident the Muskies will be a better football team next season despite the loss of some key starting players, including McTavish, Wager, Richards, and Jamie Booth.
“We will lose some great players but we have got some good players coming up,” enthused Allan, who stressed the coaches will start preparing for next season relatively soon.
“Spring training isn’t that far away.”