It was easily the biggest challenge the Lacombe Raiders have faced all year.
In a nail-biting provincial semi-final in Lacombe this past Saturday, the Lacombe Raiders defeated the Edmonton Black Raiders 22-14 to become the first ever Central Alberta team to make it to a provincial final.
It was clear from the first quarter that the two teams were evenly matched. Both teams had stellar defensive lines while both struggled somewhat offensively. By the end of the first half, neither team had made much headway and the scoreboard showed the game tied at 7-7.
The third quarter went on much the same. It was in the fourth quarter of the game where a third down drive for the end zone by Edmonton made the tide turn in its favour.
Knowing the ball was going to Edmonton’s Alexander Gayle, whom Edmonton relied heavily on during the game, Lacombe anticipated Edmonton’s play, moving too early and having an off-side as well as an unnecessary roughness penalty called against them.
Those penalties resulted in the ball being placed on Lacombe’s goal line and a subsequent touchdown for Edmonton. With only about six minutes left in the game, it looked like Lacombe’s shot at the provincial title might be slipping through the players’ fingers. “It was scary,” said Quarterback David Mueller. He added at that point, he was not sure if his team would be able to get the points back.
Mike Wood said he and the rest of the coaching staff were sure the team could and would catch up.
“We were so confident in our team,” said Wood.
When Edmonton recovered their own kick after that touchdown, Lacombe’s defensive line kicked its game up a notch, stopping any further touchdown’s from Edmonton in order to get the ball back in the hands of Lacombe’s offensive line.
Middle Linebacker James Wood said he was aware of the pressure he and his line mates were facing. He added he did whatever he could to help the defense and keep them motivated.
But, as things were looking dire, the winds shifted again, this time in favour of Lacombe.
A long run and subsequent touchdown by Lucas Wessner closed much of the score-gap and gave Lacombe a much-needed morale boost. Wessner said he was overjoyed when he realized he had made it to the end zone unscathed.
“I was just so happy,” said Wessner. “I kept running and then I ran back around. I was just so happy.”
That morale boost was even furthered by Ben Arifin, who had been sitting on the sidelines with a torn glut, gearing up and coming onto the field. Arifin said as he was standing on the sidelines watching the game, he got a call from his father telling him to get dressed and give his team some much needed help.
Lacombe then scored on a two-point conversion attempt, putting them one point ahead of Edmonton and back in the running for the victory. A few minutes later, Arifin bought his team some extra insurance when he made an interception and long run for another Lacombe touchdown.
At that point, it looked like Lacombe had the game in the bag, but Edmonton wasn’t going to let Lacombe have the victory that easily. Pushing for one more touchdown and even bringing an injured Gayle back onto the field, Edmonton forced Lacombe’s defense further and further back.While Edmonton looked several times as if they would score, Lacombe defense hung on, keeping the lead until the end of the game.
The players said they may not have been able to do it without the help of their fans, who showed outstanding support on Saturday, braving the cold weather to cheer on the team. “I think the fans were a big factor in this game because they helped motivate us through the hard parts,” said Wessner.
“Seeing friends and family in the stands really helps,” added Mueller.
As the first Central Alberta team ever to make it to a provincial final, both the players and coaching staff of the Lacombe Raiders are incredibly excited and proud of the achievement. Mike, who decided at the beginning of the season to retire from coaching the Raiders after this year, said he couldn’t ask for a better season during his final year coaching.
Lacombe will host the Calgary Bulldogs in the provincial championship at 11 a.m. on Saturday at ME Global Field.