Lancers are in it to win it
No. 1 seed Dakota has sights set on first AAA high school football crown
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Dakota Collegiate has never won a triple-A provincial championship in varsity football. It’s two games away from putting that slide to rest.
The Lancers (7-1) enter the Winnipeg High School Football League (WHSFL) playoffs as the top seed in Division 1 (Gustafson Conference) after knocking off St. Paul’s Crusaders (7-1) 29-19 in Thursday’s regular-season finale. It was the second meeting between the province’s top two programs and a chance for Mitchell Harrison’s squad to build some mental fortitude ahead of the post-season.
“Particularly momentum, I think that goes a long way,” Harrison told the Free Press Monday. “As much as the game mattered, it also kind of didn’t matter in that we both knew however it ended up, we’d be one and two (seeds) between the two programs and then we’d be playing three or four (seeds).
“So, it was more of a mental thing going into playoffs, knowing we can play with anybody.”
Confidence is something Harrison noted has never wavered among his players this season, particularly when playing against the perennial powerhouse Crusaders.
Harrison, in his fourth season heading the Lancers’ varsity football program, explained that St. Paul’s was his staff’s number one target upon taking over Dakota’s varsity program in 2019. Their plans have come to fruition, for the most part, falling just once to the Crusaders by three points in Week 3, when Dakota was missing six starters.
“I think the timing of the game was fantastic,” Harrison said of Thursday’s season finale. “We lost one early in the year and then we had a long time until we played them again, but they were kind of champing at the bit just to get that second shot at them.”
Dakota may get a third crack at St. Paul’s in two weeks, but will have to take down the fourth-seed Vincent Massey Collegiate (Winnipeg) in the semi-finals at IG Field on Friday to do so. The Crusaders, meanwhile, will take the field against the third-seeded Oak Park Raiders at 7 p.m. to finalize the triple-A championship matchup.
While Dakota is the favourite to emerge from their side of the bracket, Harrison is not overlooking the Trojans, who ended the Lancers’ season in last year’s semi-finals.
“I think it’s just about weekly preparation and the kids getting used to the process that we go through every week, knowing that we are never looking forward to the next opponent until this matchup has been dealt with,” said Harrison, whose defence has allowed a second-best 12.6 points per game this season.
“There’s only six teams in our league, so you really can’t take anyone for granted just because we all know each other so well and play each other so well that you just can’t write a team off. You never know what’s gonna happen.”
The Lancers, who feature 15 seniors in their starting lineup on both sides of the ball, may have their best shot yet at capturing a first championship. Their last appearance in a Division 1 title game was 2017, two years before Harrison took over.
Nevan Brown said this Lancers squad is the most talented team he’s ever played on.
“We have a real opportunity to win it all this year,” said Brown, a Grade 12 linebacker. So this next game is extremely important for us.”
Brown, who set a WHSFL single-season record for tackles with 99 this year, said the opportunities for the team to bond this year — in comparison to last year when the COVID-19 pandemic continued to restrict what players could do outside of school — have gone a long way toward building a cohesive group. The team was able to return to its series of volunteering initiatives, including building a book fair at St. Vital Mall, which took a full team effort.
“Last year, we had lots of talent, as well, but the team really didn’t gel,” he said. “This year, I feel like we’re kind of all more coming together and playing as one, playing for each other, especially since most of our team is seniors and we know this is really our final shot to make something special happen.”
Left tackle Sean Rowe is one of four seniors starting along an offensive line that has helped the Lancers’ offence prance to a second-best 219 points this season.
“It would mean the world,” Rowe said. “I’ve been with most of these guys for four years now and in Grade 9 we got crushed in the (junior varsity) finals. So now it’s redemption for Grade 9 and now we just want to finish off our high school careers with a championship and ride into our university years knowing we got the job done.
“The regular season means nothing now. Anything could happen in the playoffs so just hoping for a good game. I’d like it to be a blow out fast, but, obviously, there’s some competition in the semis. Carry the moment that we have into the finals and beat St. Paul’s.”
In the junior varsity bracket, top-seeded Oak Park will face Grant Park (4) Wednesday to determine who will play the winner of Dakota Collegiate (2) and St. Paul’s (3) in the championship on Nov. 12.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.