Muskies edged despite valiant effort

Joey Payeur

It’s a long way from hoping not to get blown out to expecting to win.
The Muskie football team has travelled that road in a short time, which made Friday’s outcome even tougher to swallow.
It took a 110-yard punt return by Tanner Dola late in the fourth quarter against a short-handed Muskies’ special teams unit, and the subsequent convert by Dylan Fathers, to allow the visiting West Kildonan Wolverines to escape with a 14-13 win.
Two years ago, West Kildonan (2-1) walked onto the home field of the Muskies (1-2) and ended their season with an emphatic 46-16 thrashing.
But a reinvented black-and-gold brigade nearly turned the tables before succumbing in the end.
“To be honest, we’re on the right track,” said head coach Mike Cuzzolino.
“We’re young and inexperienced in a lot of areas, but this group has more heart than any other team I’ve coached,” he noted.
“They truly want to win, they’re really trying to do what it takes to win, and they are doing the right things to turn this program around,” Cuzzolino added.
“We’re still a work in progress, but this program has come a long way and I’m lucky to have great kids to coach.”
The numbers all pointed to what should have been a Fort High triumph.
The Muskies racked up 335 yards offensively to the Wolverines’ 87 and also forced three turnovers compared to just one for themselves.
But the often-overlooked special teams were front and centre on this day–and not in the way Cuzzolino had hoped.
With the Muskies up 13-7, punter Sean Huziak had an eye on trying to kick the ball through the end zone from 54 yards out for a single point.
But Dola grabbed it at the goal line and raced forward against what Cuzzolino realized too late was only a nine-man punt coverage unit when there should have been 12.
A few missed tackles left Dola with nothing but green between him and the Muskie end zone as he sprinted down the right sideline.
West Kildonan took a time count violation penalty on the convert, but Fathers still drilled the go-ahead point through the uprights from five yards further back.
The punt coverage breakdown was just one of a litany of special teams’ misfires that all impacted the outcome.
Carson Noga missed both his field goal attempts from 40 and 19 yards, the latter in the fourth quarter which could have put the Muskies up 15-7 but instead was worth just a single point.
As well, both Muskie touchdowns went unconverted–the first because of a bad snap that was fallen on by the Wolverines.
The other was on a two-point try that was fumbled and then picked up by running back Sekina Scheibler, whose desperation heave to the end zone was intercepted by the Wolverines.
“I’ve always told them that you need to be good on special teams,” Cuzzolino stressed.
“They can win you games and also lose you games,” he noted. “We experienced the latter first-hand on Friday.
“We will recover very easily from this,” Cuzzolino added.
“These guys come to practice and work their tails off every day,” he said.
“We will work harder on our special teams and this won’t be a problem anymore.”
The Muskies still had a chance to tie the game with a punt single chance from the Wolverines’ 43 with less than three minutes to play.
But Joel Truthwaite busted through the line to block Huziak’s punt.
The Muskies’ defence, which was superb all day, held firm and forced a two-and-out by West Kildonan.
But on the ensuing punt, Huziak arrived a second too late to block Fathers’ kick and smacked into the Wolverines’ punter to draw a 15-yard flag and keep the ball in West Kildonan’s hands.
“Sean is a really gifted athlete and a fierce competitor,” Cuzzolino noted.
“He lives for this team and he will continue to be a leader on this team, and he is a guy who takes his mistakes, learns from them, and makes sure that they are no longer going to be an issue.
“He has great character and a tremendous work ethic,” Cuzzolino added. “Our guys can learn a lot from him.”
The Muskies got the ball back at their own 19 with 23 seconds left.
A run by Scheibler, who was named co-winner of the Currie Division’s offensive player-of-the-week after racking up 28 carries for 253 yards and a touchdown, and a roughing-the-passer call against West Kildonan moved the ball to the Muskie 42.
But an incompletion left quarterback Brady Meeks on his last gasp and all he could do was a backfield pass to Scheibler, who ran for all he was worth but was tackled after a two-yard gain to end the game.
Meeks had a career-best day in just his fifth start as he went 9-for-16 for 82 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions.
“[Scheibler] is such a gifted athlete and terrific competitor, and so is Meeks,” Cuzzolino lauded.
“And they’re also great people,” he added. “They love the game, the love this team and all the guys on it.
“They do so much to try and make everyone better and make every person on the team feel like they belong and treat everyone like family.”
The game started off looking like it would be a repeat of the 2015 wipeout.
After the Muskies went two-and-out on the opening possession, it took West Kildonan pivot Devon Machum just one play to find the end zone as he hit Dola on a slant pass for a 7-0 lead.
But that was the visitors’ last points on offence the rest of the day as the Muskie defence buckled down.
“Our ‘D’ was terrific,” Cuzzolino remarked. “They played lights out after that. They did everything necessary to win.
“I was so impressed with the effort they put in on Friday.”
On the last play of the first half, Meeks scrambled to his left and went deep down the field to Riley Argue, who was facing double coverage.
Somehow, the ball got over the hands of Justin Petrishen, through the arms of another Wolverines’ defender, and into the hands of Argue.
The receiver spun on a dime, dashed towards the end zone while leaving a diving Lucas Filbert in his wake, and just made it inside the pylon before getting pushed out by a fast-closing Petrishen.
It all added up to a 45-yard scoring strike (the first passing touchdown this season for the Muskies), with the missed convert leaving the score 7-6.
In the third quarter, the Muskies forced a turnover on downs and then a fumble by Wolverines’ running back De’von Young.
Fort High then drove 57 yards on five plays, all of them runs by Scheibler–the last two a 23-yard reverse ramble that put him out just before the goal line and then a one-yard plunge for the major.
West Kildonan hung tough, though, and the Muskies’ penchant for penalties, along with the special teams’ meltdowns, eventually lifted the Wolverines to the win.
Cuzzolino firmly believes his team will regroup in time for its home-finale tomorrow (Sept. 28) at 4 p.m. before finishing the regular season with three-straight road games.
Tomorrow’s showdown, which also will serve as the Muskies’ annual Homecoming game, will be against the Tec Voc Hornets (1-2), who are tied for sixth with the Muskies in the Currie Division (‘A’).
Both squads will be looking to move up into a more favourable playoff position with a win.
“This team will be fine,” Cuzzolino insisted.
“They came out ready to compete on Monday,” he noted. “We had our best attendance numbers [for practice] to date.
“This team is all heart and you can’t coach that,” Cuzzolino added. “Heart beats talent.
“Our motto is all in, all the time and they truly embody that.
“These guys are tired of losing,” he remarked. “They’ve developed that will to win and they will be ready for [tomorrow].”