Crusaders march to title

Capture yet another WHSFL crown

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It’s fair to say the celebration was worth the wait.

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It’s fair to say the celebration was worth the wait.

The St. Paul’s Crusaders resumed their reign over high school football in Manitoba on Saturday evening, knocking off the Dakota Lancers 15-11 in the Winnipeg High School Football League Division 1 championship at a snowy IG Field.

It’s the Crusaders’ first Division 1 title since 2019, when they had extended a run of three championships in four years.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

St. Paul’s Crusaders celebrate after defeating the Dakota Lancers in the high school varsity football final at IG Field on Saturday.

“I mean, it’s been such a long journey, four years in the making, finally being able to win it at the end is nice,” said Grade 12 linebacker Dario Macchia, who, along with 19 other seniors on the roster, ended their high school careers with their first provincial title.

“It’s been a long year, we’ve been together for a long time. We’re really close and I think it showed today.”

The championship tilt served as a rubber match between the province’s top two programs, who both entered the game a stellar 8-1 on the year. St. Paul’s outlasted the Lancers 23-20 in a Week 3 meeting before Dakota exacted some revenge in the regular-season finale, winning 29-19.

Saturday’s heavyweight bout called for a bit more grit — a bit more ugly — from both sides, however. While it was the province’s top-two offences squaring off, it was also high school football’s two stingiest defences colliding for all the marbles. St. Paul’s allowed just 10 points per game during the regular season while Dakota wasn’t far behind, conceding 12.6 per game.

The Crusaders flaunted their stout defensive unit in the early goings, forcing four-straight two-and-outs from a Dakota offence that scored 27.3 points per game this season. The slow start from the Lancers opened the door enough for St. Paul’s to take an early lead.

After kicking for a single on their opening drive, the Crusaders upped the ante on their second possession, as quarterback Cole Anseeuw found receiver Porter Holland up the seam of the defence for a 60-yard strike to grow St. Paul’s lead to eight in the first quarter.

“Last time we played Dakota, I think they did a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage, and I think we did a better job of battling for that line of scrimmage,” said head coach Stacy Dainard, in his 20th season heading the St. Paul’s varsity program. “ I wouldn’t say we controlled it, but we certainly did a better job in our run game and all that kind of stuff. So being able to play strong defence, it was key for us all year long and it certainly carried us today, as well.”

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Crusaders receiver Johnny Vagianos runs from a Lancers tackle.

Just as nearly everything seemed to be going in the favour of the boys in Maroon, the Lancers finally got their first first down of the game with nine minutes remaining in the second quarter.

Slowly, the Dakota offence started to wake up, finally shooting a jolt of energy into the crowd as the first half was nearing its end. Lancers running back John Bourbard caught a swing pass out of the backfield from quarterback Blake Penner before turning upfield and trucking a Crusaders defender at the goal line to punch in the Lancers’ first score of the game. Dakota would convert on their two-point attempt to even the score at eight, where it would stay entering the break.

The defences proceeded to show why they were the two best units in the province for much of the third quarter, giving the offences little to nothing. That was until St. Paul’s managed to string together a methodical drive across most of the field that was capped by a Dhevin Gajaweera two-yard rushing touchdown to put St. Paul’s in front.

A tug-of-war for field position, unaided by short offensive drives, ensued with both defensive units making numerous big plays that appeared would flip the momentum in their team’s favour. That was to no avail, however, as the other opposing unit simply continued to one-up the other while the clock quickly dwindled, to the liking of the Crusaders.

“Both teams made plays. And I think in the end we made one or two more as it came down the stretch,” Dainard said. “It was a great game overall, and, I mean, they have a great program. I told the guys, ‘Anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy. We’re gonna have to fight all 48 minutes and it certainly was.’”

“It wasn’t stellar by any stretch but they were a very good defence, a great front-seven, so every yard you earn is going to be a hard one.”

The Lancers suffered a crucial blow right before the third quarter ended, as Penner sustained an injury after being flung to the ground. Dakota’s starting signal-caller did not return to the game, leaving backup Rogan Vergata to lead a heroic comeback against a defence that was as cold as the November air.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Lancers' John Boubard is taken down by the Crusaders defence.

While the Lancers threatened to score on a couple of late possessions, it was Crusaders’ cornerback Nikita Sinkala who stepped up with the play of the game, driving a floating pass before securing the game-sealing interception.

“We had a lot of prep time coming up to this game,” said Macchia, who was crowned the game’s most valuable player. “Our defence worked really hard this week. We were ready and we executed.”

Gajaweera was crowned the game’s best offensive player while Dakota’s AJ Van Haute was named defensive player of the game.

The Crusaders’ championship was preceded by the WHSFL junior varsity title game between Oak Park High School and Dakota Collegiate.

The Raiders, who finished as the province’s top JV team during the regular season with a 6-0 record, stamped their exceptional season with a 35-13 drubbing over the Lancers to end their 2022 campaign a perfect 9-0.

What had the makings of a rout in the first half, as Oak Park entered the break with a 21-0 lead, got interesting in the second half after Lancers’ running back Amid Kanu returned an 85-yard punt to give Dakota their only major of the game.

While the Lancers threatened to score on a few occasions in the second half, the hole was too big from which to dig themselves.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Crusaders running back Dhevin Gajaweera races for a touchdown against the Lancers.

Raiders’ freshman receiver Tavin Parani accounted for two touchdown receptions on the afternoon, including a 90-yard catch-and-run that sealed Oak Park’s title late in the fourth quarter.

Oak Park’s Onan Furst was named offensive player of the game while Dakota’s Destinee Okedera took home defensive player of the game honours.

jfreysam@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam
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Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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