Once again, the Lacombe Raiders have claimed a championship title.
On Nov. 1st, the Lacombe Raiders defeated the Hunting Hills Lightning 21 – 16 to claim the league championship for the second year running.
It is also their fifth title in the last 11 years, but the first time those wins have been consecutive.
Coach Darren Gagnon said it was at times a difficult game, but the Raiders prevailed in the end.
“I think in the end, our kids overcame,” said Gagnon. “Their hearts took over and they came together as a team.”
It was an incredibly tense final match-up between the Lacombe Raiders and the Hunting Hills Lightning. With both teams very evenly matched, the game could have gone either way right up until the final seconds.
Lacombe drew first blood and managed to establish a somewhat comfortable 11-0 lead which the Raiders held until the end of the second quarter. With little time left in the first half, Hunting Hills managed to score a touchdown and a successful conversion kick to put the Lightning back in the game and make the score 11-8.
While the Raiders still had a three-point lead going into the second half, things were much closer and the pressure of the game could be felt from the sidelines.
Once again, Lacombe’s outstanding defense served them well, keeping the Hunting Hills offence at bay for the most part, but the one touchdown that did get through changed the mood of the already tight game entirely.
After that second touchdown and conversion kick from the Lightning the tables were turned.
With the score of 16-11 in favour of Hunting Hills, the Raiders were in trouble.
While there was still plenty of time on the clock, the Raiders couldn’t afford to make mistakes.
A few offensive missteps throughout the game had held them back and had now caught up with them.
The Raiders rose to the challenge, wasting little time putting offensive pressure on the Lightning and bringing play deep into their zone.
While Lacombe couldn’t turn a series of plays near the Lightning goal line into a touchdown, subsequent plays with the ball in Hunting Hills’ possession allowed them to pick up two points for a safety.
On their next foray deep in Lightning territory, the Raiders did manage to pull off a touchdown.
Kicker Jack Bahler even got the chance to re-kick his blocked conversion due to an offside call against Hunting Hills and was successful on the second attempt to make the score 21-16.
Lacombe was again ahead on the board, but there was still more game to go. Luckily, the Raiders had already pulled together, both on offence and defense and their determination to leave the field with the championship title was evident.
It was a game that was peppered with some mistakes by the Raiders but when they came together and dug deep for the effort to pull off the win, they were unstoppable. As Coach Wayne Haarstad said, it was passion that won the Raiders this year’s title.
“Team of Hearts, that’s what I call them,” said Haarstad.
Both Haarstad and Gagnon complimented the Lightning on a championship well played.
“It was two equal teams that both played great,” said Gagnon.
“Hats off to them for bringing a great game to us,” said Haarstad.
While the game was a close one, neither of the coaches faltered in their confidence, they said.
“I had too much faith in our kids,” said Gagnon. He also praised the Raiders for their commitment to the sport.
“Do you know what it’s like for 38 kids to show up every night and not miss a practice or anything? It’s unbelievable. As dedicated as any Lacombe Raiders team we have ever had.”
It was clear from the ceremonies and presentation after a game that it was a very emotional game for both teams and for the coaches as much as for the players. Both coaches said they were incredibly proud of their teams and touched by the players’ determination.
“It was difficult to hold back the tears,” said Gagnon.
“I’m unbelievably proud,” said Haarstad.
As excited as the Raiders are to be named league champions for the second year running, this is not the end of the road for them.
Next weekend, the Raiders will travel to Edmonton to play in the provincial semi-final.
Haarstad and Gagnon said provincials will certainly be a challenge.
They commented on how bigger pools of players in Edmonton and Calgary allow teams to pick more talented players at this level.
“They don’t have weak players,” said Gagnon.
As there are several first-year players on the Raiders roster this year, Haarstad said it will be up to the veterans more than ever to step up and lead by example.
“The veterans will take (the rookies) under their wings and teach them,” said Haarstad. He also said the Raiders veterans had “the biggest hearts” of anyone he had ever coached.
After the game, Lacombe’s veterans said that they will have even more drive to perform at provincials, especially considering they lost in the final last season. Because of this, they are already hungry for the cup.