Tears of jubilation on one side and dejection on the other flowed as dusk settled over McLeod Stadium late Saturday afternoon.
The visiting Saskatoon Hilltops had completed a stunning, come-from-behind 23-21 win over the Langley Rams in the Canadian Bowl.
The Hilltops scored 17 unanswered points during the second half to win by two.
The victory gave the Hilltops their third consecutive Canadian Junior Football League championship and a CJFL record 16th national title overall.
Saskatoon head coach Tom Sargeant said, “At the end of the day, someone has to come up with the win and it was us today.”
The Rams, who made their first Canadian Bowl appearance in 20 years, are left contemplating what could have been.
The home team led 14-6 at halftime, with all of the scoring coming in the second quarter.
Quarterback Greg Bowcott connected with receiver Malcolm Williams on a five yard scoring play, then found Michael Patko for a scintillating 73 yard pass-and-run for a major to put the home team up by eight at the break.
The Rams added to their lead 6:46 into the third quarter on a one yard touchdown run by Daniel Xavier to make it 21-6.
Cue the comeback.
A six yard touchdown run by Saskatoon’s Andre Lalonde late in the third quarter, followed by a Zach Schmidt field goal early in the fourth stanza brought the Hilltops to within five points of the Rams, at 21-16.
The Hilltops took the lead for good with 10:07 remaining in the final quarter, on a 40 yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Karpinka to receiver Graham Unruh, who was named offensive player of the game.
From that point, the Hilltops’ defence took over, keeping Langley’s dangerous offence in check the rest of the way.
Over the final two minutes, the Hilltops managed to maintain possession on a long pass followed by some strong ground-and-pound work by Lalonde, their workhorse running back.
When the clock ticked down to zero, a game between two evenly matched teams came to an end.
And while the Hilltops players jumped for joy in the middle of the field, a few feet away, the Rams clumped around their head coach Jeff Alamolhoda.
“Nobody said we’d be here! We’re here!” Alamolhoda told his players.
Indeed, the Rams achieved many milestones this season.
They won the BCFC playoff title with a 20-13 win over the previously undefeated Vancouver Island Raiders, in a championship game played Oct. 27 at Nanaimo’s Caledonia Park.
The Rams rolled to a solid 7-2-1 regular season record, going unbeaten against every team in the conference except the Raiders, who had two wins and a tie against their closest rivals.
Langley’s lineup consisted of 11 BCFC all-stars and four All-Canadians. Making the CJFL Defensive All-Canadian team were defensive lineman Evan Foster and linebacker Adam Konar. Centre Anthony Daley was named as to the CJFL Offensive All-Canadian team.
Receiver Malcolm Williams was among the nominees for CJFL Outstanding Rookie.
And offensive dynamo Nick Downey was selected to the All Canadian team as a return specialist for the fourth consecutive season.
But in the end, the Rams, as hard as they worked, were unable to win their final game of the season in front of a capacity crowd of more than 2,400 fans at McLeod.
“I don’t think we could have done anything different,” Rams linebacker Arie Nakagawa said. “Things just didn’t go our way today.”
Surrounded by reporters, Alamolhoda congratulated the Hilltops for their win.
“It is what it is,” the emotional head coach said. “The Hilltops were continuing to fight, being down like that, and they just have the knowledge, of being in that situation, of putting their foot on the gas.”
Alamolhoda was also quick to applaud his own players, saying that the Rams overcame adversity to win the BCFC and give themselves the opportunity to play for a Canadian title on home soil.
“Obviously the outcome wasn’t what we wanted but you know what? This is a family, we’ll always be a family, we’ll stick together through thick and thin and we’ll be back next year,” Alamolhoda said.
At the other side, Sargeant said his fifth-year players “provided great leadership from beginning to the end.”
“That was the reason we were victorious today, because of our great leaders and our fifth-year players.”
The veteran bench boss noted that the Hilltops were very fortunate to be able to hoist the championship trophy, especially after being held to just two field goals during the opening half.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t play well [in the first half] and the reason we didn’t play well was, Langley was playing better than us,” Sargeant said. “We needed to man up, we needed to figure out a few adjustments, and we needed to come out with a more concerted game plan and stay the course.”