The junior bantam Cowichan Bulldogs are champions once again.
The Cowichan Bulldogs emerged victorious last Sunday after two Vancouver Island Canadian Football Association powerhouses went head-to-head for the junior bantam championship at Ladysmith’s Forrest Field.
The Bulldogs went 8-2 in the regular season, bested only by the Gordon Head Raiders. But when the teams squared off for the Gold Cup, the Cowichan players proved that the “underdog” label was not exactly accurate. The Bulldogs’ sized, strength, skills and determination led them to a 40-32 win when it counted most.
“This was one of the best, if not the best, final that I have ever been a part of,” Cowichan head coach Ted Harris said. “My boys were pumped — nervous but playing some outstanding football. They are in top shape for this time of year and playing their best football of the season. I love it when we are labelled as the underdogs. It gives us that extra motivation to win. These guys played their hearts out on both sides of the field. “
The Bulldogs received the opening kickoff and went right to work, pounding the Gordon Head defence while quarterback Nico Harris and running backs Dillon Wilson and Davin Reithaug moved the ball on the ground. Harris and Wilson combined for a 45-yard touchdown that Harris converted to put Cowichan up 8-0.
Gordon Head lost the ball on downs, and the Cowichan offence returned to the field, following the blocking of Rylan Rowe, Brad MacRae, Eric Guo, Eamon Manley, Matteo Breckenridge and Isaac Keepence into the offensive end where Nico Harris ran 40 yards to score, then kicked the convert for a 16-0 Bulldogs lead.
After another turnover on downs, the Bulldogs marched down the field again but were forced to punt. Gordon Head took a penalty for roughing the kicker, and the Bulldogs capitalized on the second chance, executing another trick play for a touchdown by Reithaug. Another successful convert put the Bulldogs up by 24.The Cowichan backfield was taking a pounding, giving Ryder Maertz a chance to fill in at running back while the starters rested their battered bodies.
The Raiders started to chip away at the Bulldogs’ lead with one touchdown just before halftime and two more after the break to make it 24-24. Cowichan’s big backs took the ball back down the field to the Gordon Head five-yard line, where signal-caller Cody Williams scored on a quarterback sneak to restore the lead.
With just four minutes left to play, the Raiders scored again to put the score at 32-32.
“This game was a gun show,” coach Harris said. “All-out combat, winner-take-all. Both teams pounding each other trying to get yardage and capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes.”
Finally, with two minutes left, the Raiders botched a short kick and the Bulldogs capitalized, with Wilson, Harris and Reithaug taking turns running the ball against the Gordon Head defence. With 1:32 on the clock, the Bulldogs were second-and-goal on the Raiders’ six-yard line when Nico Harris took the ball on a fake reverse and dove into the end zone to put his team up by eight once again. The Raiders tried to mount another comeback, but ran out of time.
The Cowichan defence was solid all game, led by standouts Mason Martindale, Devon Tidder and Ben Wilson, while Reithaug, Dillon Wilson, Nico Harris and Jordan Buscaino also played significant roles.
“These boys deserve every bit of this memorable moment,” coach Harris said. “They played with such determination and intensity. We had a lot of confidence in our team. My assistant coach Gino Buscaino and I knew that if everyone played their best and gave 110 per cent effort, that we would retain our title.
“These young men were awesome and they will cherish this moment and these memories for many years to come! They worked their butts off to get there which contributed to our success!”