Muskies improve despite fifth-straight loss

Mitch Calvert

That’s a little more like it.
The Muskie football team put together a heroic effort Friday afternoon at Muskie Field, scratching and clawing for every inch of yardage for three quarters against the Miles Mac Buckeyes in Winnipeg High School Football League action.
But the energy and momentum flat-lined in the latter stages of the game as the visiting Buckeyes scored three unanswered touchdowns late to steal a 46-28 win from Fort High’s grasp.
“I heard a lot of comments from people in the community and within this program about our improvement this season, and yes, there’s no denying we have improved,” Muskie offensive co-ordinator Andrew George said.
“But good teams find a way to win and bad teams find a way to lose,” he noted. “We’re not a very good football team right now, and it has a lot more to do with what happened on the field [on] game day.
“I’m looking for the leaders of our team to show up,” George stressed. “We have some very talented guys on our team; some of them may be the most talented at their respective positions in the league.
“We have major depth issues and likely one of the shortest benches ever fielded in the modern era of the [WHSFL], but we do have some very talented players, and we have the ability to win games,” he continued.
“But if we don’t have any leadership from our seniors, we will not succeed as a team,” he warned.
“I need players that elevate the play of those around them, who are strong enough to call out the play of a teammate and, at the same time, be respected enough to have that teammate listen and respond on the field.”
Despite big strides in their last two games since a forfeit defeat to River East in Week 3, George said the squad has the ability to be better than their 0-5 record would suggest—but only if they band together as a team.
“What we have right now are some talented guys trying to do too much and make up for the play of others on the field,” George remarked. “That doesn’t work in football, that doesn’t work in the workplace, that doesn’t work in the classroom.
“That’s like putting band-aids on a flesh wound,” he suggested. “It might cover up the wound, but you’re still going to bleed.
“This is a team game, and you need all 12 guys to be playing well to be successful,” he stressed. “You need your leaders to elevate the play of the people around them.
“If we fail to do this, we will fail as a team.”
The black-and-gold looked like a team possessed in the first half—and that effort to start the game forced Miles Mac to punt from midfield on their first possession.
Tyler Abma subsequently blocked the punt and rumbled downfield before a touchdown-saving tackle brought him down on the one-yard line.
It didn’t take long to convert the score, however, as Abma punched it in on the next play to give the hosts the early 7-0 lead.
The momentum was short-lived, though, as the Buckeyes drove downfield on their next drive to score.
A missed convert kept the Muskies ahead 7-6, but the black-and-gold were forced to punt on their next possession and the Buckeyes’ Bryton Balzer (who doubles as punt returner and quarterback) found a hole and coasted all the way to paydirt on the return, putting the visitors up 13-7.
The Muskies didn’t wilt—getting a 53-yard touchdown run from Abma shortly afterwards to take a 14-13 lead after one quarter.
Hemmed deep in their own end zone early in the second quarter, Balzer was picked off by rival quarterback Dan Brunetta (who plays both sides of the ball), bringing it inside the 10-yard line to set the Muskies up with great field position.
Fort High looked to extend their lead further when Abma appeared to cross the goal-line two plays later, but instead was called down on the one-yard line.
And that call proved costly as Brunetta fumbled on a quarterback sneak on the next play to halt the Muskie drive in its tracks.
The see-saw game took another twist shortly thereafter as Balzer found Josh Zuniga in the end zone to regain the lead at 20-14.
But on the Muskies’ ensuing drive, Brunetta dropped back and looked downfield to the speedy Britt Green. The timing was flawless and Green out-ran his man to the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown—giving the Muskies a slim 21-20 lead at the half.
Unfortunately, Green was taken down just as he reached the end zone and had to leave the game with what was diagnosed as a spiral fracture in his fibula.
The black-and-gold picked up where they left off to begin the third quarter, getting a 98-yard touchdown run from Abma on the first play to send the crowd into a frenzy.
But the injury to Green exposed a hole in the defence as the black-and-gold couldn’t find an answer for a Buckeyes’ running game that pounded the left side in the second half, breaking through for huge gains.
Miles Mac swapped in little-used Jeremy Berthon at running back, who provided more of a finesse attack to up-the-gut starter Michael Rebizant—and the move exposed the Muskies’ defensive weakness.
Berthon found a hole on the left side on his first attempt and went all the way to the house, though a missed two-point convert on a diving tackle by Donny Krishka kept the Muskies in the lead 28-26.
Berthon, who had seen limited action in the Buckeyes’ previous four games, exposed the shorthanded Muskies’ defence again on the next drive—once again breaking through the left side and rumbling all the way to the end zone to cap a long drive.
“They started to get outside on us on a regular basis in the second half,” George admitted. “Britt Green is usually the player responsible for the outside containment to the offence’s left, but his injury forced us to rotate a few inexperienced guys into that spot.
“Miles Mac did a great job identifying this weakness and exploiting it,” George added.
“Actually, that whole left side got a bit of a makeover during the game because we had much of our strength to the other side of the field where we had their top receiver [Dustin Herda] covered.
“We’re not a team with a lot of depth,” George reiterated. “We have a strong starting core, but obviously in football injuries happen and our young guys weren’t able to step up and fill the voids.”
A 50-yard run from Balzer poured salt in the wounds to cap a second half dominated by the visitors.
Perhaps the highlight of the half for the black-and-gold was a catch by Brad McDonald. With Buckeyes’ cornerback Enrique Chacon draped all over him, McDonald still managed to catch the ball around the defender’s helmet while being taken to the ground.
“McDonald came to practice with his cast off [he had a broken hand since Game 1] this week,” George noted. “That’s been the only thing stopping us from utilizing him in the passing game more often this year.
“His big plays didn’t surprise me,” George insisted of McDonald. “I knew at the end of last year he was going to be a special player.
“Dan’s really matured as a thrower in this league, and the combination of Dan and Brad is something to keep your eye on for the next couple of weeks.”
Another highlight has to be the emergence of Abma as the clear-cut running back, finishing with more than 200 yards on the ground.
“Abma has arrived as a running back in this league,” George said. “If it were not for two red zone fumbles, it wouldn’t be out of line to call him a premier runner in the entire league.
“It’s easy to give all the credit to Tyler, but his offensive line has really started to gel,” George noted.
“I brought in coach Lou [Gauthier] to come help me out with everything that goes on inside the tackle box on offence after our forfeited game, and the results have been phenomenal as you can just see from the statistics.
“Lou has a lot of experience in this league and is a real asset to this program,” George added.
With just two games remaining on their schedule, the Muskies are playing for pride rather than playoff position at this point. And a short bench was made shorter by the injury to Green.
“Obviously tough knowing your season is going to be over, but he [Green] went out in storybook fashion, scoring a touchdown on his last play as a Muskie football player,” George lauded.
“Britt’s injury is definitely a major blow to us. He plays a big role on both defence and offence, but he also surprised us with his punting ability this year.
“Our players are going to have to step up and take advantage of their opportunity to play and fill his shoes,” George warned.
Meanwhile, an injury to lineman Jeff Angus in the second quarter hampered the Muskies’ running game.
“We use Jeff quite a bit to pull and lead block on the edge,” George said. “In the second quarter, he tweaked an ankle enough so that he was no longer able to pull effectively, which severely limited our ability to run for the rest of the game.
“We had to adjust our game plan and play selection because of Jeff’s injury.”
Herda, the Buckeyes’ top receiver who had chewed up opposing defences for 396 yards through the first four weeks, was contained by the solid play of Krishka at cornerback.
Despite producing their best effort of the season, George said the Muskies need to focus better in the red zone if they hope to come out on the winning end of these sort of games.
“Our play in the red zone was horrific,” he stressed. “We may have had the lead at half-time, but I wasn’t a happy camper addressing the team in the locker-room.
“Three turnovers in the red zone in one half is completely unacceptable at any level of football,” he remarked. “These guys are playing scared in the red zone when it should be no different than playing at midfield.
“A lot of people thought we physically ran out of gas in the second half . . . we didn’t. It was mental gas,” George insisted. “The fourth red zone turnover let the wind out of the sails.
“You could feel it on the sidelines.
“The muffed punt return and fumbled end-around while we were driving for a score were just nails in the coffin.”
The black-and-gold next travel to Winnipeg tomorrow (Oct. 15) to meet the Tec Voc Hornets (2-3) before wrapping up the season with a home date against the Portage Trojans (2-3) on Oct. 23.
“We’re walking on such a fine line right now between being a good team and a bad team,” George admitted. “If our players get the message this week and step up, I’m very confident playing these next two games.”
In other news, Muskie head coach Dean Bruyere has resigned from his duties, citing health issues.