“They’re not as good as they were last year,” said Brett Watt, head coach of the Sturgeon Creek Schooners, referring to the Muskies after their 22-14 victory over the Winnipeg squad here last Friday.
Then again, it’s tough to top the 62-0 shellacking the black-and-gold handed the Schooners a year ago.
Certainly, all things pointed to a closer game this time around.
All-star running back Terry LaBelle, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year and scored 15 touchdowns, graduated in June. Stand-out fullback Dana Preston also has moved on.
And starting offensive lineman Jesse Rodrigues and Joe Sletmoen were sitting out due to injury.
Still, the Muskies jumped out to a quick start Friday—and for a while it looked like another rout might be on.
The Fort opened the scoring after recovering a blocked punt by linebacker Jeff Poperechny, giving them the ball inside the Schooners 20-yard line.
With time winding down in the first quarter, running back Jock Gemmell got a first down on a sweep to make it first and goal. Then quarterback Gary Wager found a hole on second down and dove through the sea of bodies for the major.
The Muskies kicked the convert for a 7-0 lead.
The defense stuffed the Schooners on the ensuing series, and a solid punt return by running back Adam McTavish gave the Muskies the ball on the Schooners 50-yard line.
A few plays later, Gemmell ran it in for the touchdown to make it 14-0 (the point after was good).
Two possessions later, Wager made the Muskies’ play of the game when he stepped back into the pocket and feathered a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Jamie Booth.
Booth reached back to his left for the catch and then beat the safety to the end zone. McTavish (also the place kicker) made his third-straight convert—after missing an earlier field goal—to widen the gap to 21-0.
The ensuing kickoff went through the end zone for an extra point and it seemed like the Muskies could do no wrong.
That’s when the Schooners decided to go to their passing game.
With under a minute left in the first half and the ball on their own 10-yard line, Schooner quarterback Ray Timlick aired out a 30-yard pass to receiver Rory Anderson, who caught it and then scampered another 60 yards for the touchdown.
The Schooners were on the board at 22-7.
After a scoreless third quarter, which featured an interception by safety Nathan Miller to snuff out one Sturgeon Creek drive, the visitors capitalized on a fumble by Scott Witherspoon to make it 22-14 midway through the fourth.
Then they threatened to score again in the final minute but the Muskie defence held on their 20-yard line, stopping the surging Schooners on third down to preserve the victory.
“I thought our offensive line was pretty good considering there were two grade nines and two grade 10s out there,” Swing said after the contest.
But he did get upset in the third quarter when Wager was hit hard on two consecutive plays. Swing called a time-out.
“If [Wager] gets hit again, after the game we’re going to run laps,” Swing yelled at his troops. “We’re going to start in that end and run to this end. Each time he gets hit, we’ll do it again.
“Do I make myself clear?” he shouted.
The team collectively agreed, and the offensive line held up for the rest of the game.
Swing said his team needed to improve their tackling, pursuit, and blocking but still was content with the exhibition win.
“I’m pleased. It was a good hard-hitting game. I don’t think either team looked too bad,” he said. “Between injuries and some grade nine and 10 players who didn’t know their position, we did OK.”
“It’s always emotional playing here in the Fort,” noted Watt, a former Muskie quarterback who led the team to the NWOSSAA title over Thunder Bay in 1989.
“You want to win.”