Muskies hold heads high despite defeat Team bows out in quarter-finals

“Can I get the seniors to stand up?” Muskie coach Greg Allan asked as he began to address the team before they took the field for warm-ups prior to their quarter-final game against the Churchill Bulldogs last Friday in Winnipeg.
“This game is potentially a last game for some people,” Allan remarked as eight players arose from their crouched positions.
“I had a plan at the beginning of the season, and this plan was to be in Winnipeg, and in Canad Inns Stadium, next Thursday—that is still my plan,” he added.
“This is what’s at stake today. You guys can come back and play next year, this may potentially be the last game for these guys—simple as that,” Allan continued. “I don’t believe it. I’ve told you time and time again—I believe in this team, and I believe in what you can do.
“. . . you guys have it inside of you, but again, this is what’s at stake today. I plan on being here shaking these guys’ hands and your hands for a great game at the end of today, because we’re going to win.
“We have an opportunity today. Everyone says that we have nothing to lose, and that is a bunch of crap—we have everything in the world to lose today.
“I don’t care about Churchill, and I don’t care about their statistics. . . . We cannot coach you any more. This is totally up to you to make a difference today.
“You have it inside of you, you just have to do it. You have to believe in yourselves and play every single play like it’s your last,” Allan concluded.
And with that, a deafening roar arose from the players, which echoed through the locker-room as they strode onto the East Side Field.
They headed out on the field as the underdogs. There was no question to that. The seventh-ranked Muskies (1-6) had allowed the most points over the regular season while the Bulldogs (6-1), seeded second, had scored the most.
But that didn’t careen into their way of thinking when they began warming up to get their blood flowing, as it was cold and brisk on this late afternoon, and the elements of rain and wind were out as if they had been hibernation and now wanted to remind people of their existence.
Then they headed back into the locker-room and awaited the words from interim head coach Shane Beckett (head coach Bob Swing could not make the game due to work responsibilities).
“Like Coach Allan said, we have a group of guys in here who are going to play today so that this isn’t their last game. They are going to work their butt off so that this is not their last game,” Beckett said with a little over five minutes to kick-off.
“The guys that are playing with them have to work hard because these guys deserve for you to work hard. You owe it to them. You owe it to yourselves.
“Today is do-or-die for both teams on that field. We can’t control the field, we can’t control the wind, we can’t control the weather, we can’t control the refs, but we can control ourselves.
“. . . we’re going to go out there and we’re going to leave it on the field,” Beckett added. “I want to have to scrape you guys off the field because you’ve worked so hard. Earn it out there. Work hard out there. Leave it all on the field.
“That’s all there is—do-or-die. There’s about five minutes until kick-off, are you guys ready?” Beckett asked.
“Yeah!” responded the players, who were 33 in total but sounded more than double that number.
The Muskies were ready, there was no question about that. It’s just that Churchill was more ready.
By halftime, it was 21-1 for the Bulldogs. Their running game was too strong. Their blocking was too crisp. Their defence was too disruptive. And their execution was just too much.
Still, drama is where you find it. And the Muskies provided that by not giving up. They never quit. No matter how bleak things looked, they still kept going. Kept coming. Kept fighting.
From the opening to the closing whistle, they didn’t wither, which was evident as they limited the Bulldogs to just one touchdown in the second half to make the final score 28-1.
“I am very proud of these guys,” said offensive line coach Tony Geense. “These guys worked hard all year against the odds, and against a lot of people who don’t believe in them, but they believe in themselves.
“There’s a lot of people that ridicule and point a finger, but these guys are out on the field every day working hard. And it was exciting to watch some of that today.
“They didn’t come out on the winning end, but they played like a bunch of men today,” Geense added.
In the locker-room after the game, tears from players dropped to the dirty floor as they began to realize their season was over.
Some stood, some sat, but they all shared one emotion—sadness. The confined space was filled with humidity as players began to take their pads off for the last time this season.
For some, it was the last time they would be experiencing such a moment as their Muskie football careers were over.
Those players—Thomas Edwards, Jake Esselink, Ty Griffith, Johannes Gerber, Craig McTavish, Ryan Mutz, Larry Pham, and Jon Wood—were understandably the most emotional.
A witness could try to catalogue all the feelings, try to capture the sight and the emotions in words in the room that had the atmosphere of a funeral, but how can you do that? The most you can do is stand there, observe, and listen.
“I can’t put into words how proud I am of these guys,” said Esselink. “These guys didn’t quit. They kept playing, and I got to give the other guys credit, though, because they ran it at us and they were good.
“It’s tough, though. I’ll probably never play football again unless I can get into a college and make it, but I’ll always have my memories,” Esselink added. “These coaches have taught us more than just football, they always give us a life lesson, and it’s never just about football.”
“We never gave up,” echoed Edwards. “I don’t have much to say because this is very tough. It’s tough to leave this way.”
“It’s really tough knowing that I’m not coming back,” agreed Gerber. “I don’t know. I wish it wouldn’t have to happen, but it’s here. But it was great.
“It was the best thing from high school, and I’ll remember it all my life,” he added.
But even for those players who will be coming back next season, the scene was almost too much to bear.
“It’s one of the hardest moments you’ll ever have to face,” said junior D.J. Howells. “These guys will never step on the field again, and seeing them get down brings everybody else down.
“I don’t know how to explain it.”
The moment also could be felt by the coaches, who had felt the same pain during their playing days—and still feel it from a different perspective.
“It really is a family, and that’s one of the saddest things. That’s part of our team that’s gone now,” said Allan.
“Saying goodbye to these guys is like saying goodbye to a member of my family, and although I’ll see some of them, some of them I won’t see again, and it’s difficult.
“You know what? It sucks. It sucks having to say goodbye to these guys,” Allan stressed. “I wish Fort Frances could’ve been here to see these guys play because they would’ve done them proud.”
“We all sweat and bleed together, and when you do that, when you share that with somebody, it’s hard when it’s over,” said Beckett. “This team is a family—some of these family members are going away to university and it feels like you’re losing a few sons.
“We’ve all been where they are right now. And we all remember what that feeling is, and seeing them in the last two minutes almost brought me to tears,” he added.
But through pain, one is able to find triumph. The Muskie program always has said they don’t just teach football, they teach players about life. No matter what the outlook, they preach to never give up, never quit, and never fold.
“Don’t quit, just keep going,” replied Esselink when asked what he’s learned as a Muskie. “Everybody says that you’re down, but just don’t quit and keep going. Keep fighting.
“Never give up, and always play your heart out.”

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