After 371 days, you can stop counting.
The Muskie football team won their first game in more than a year here Friday afternoon with an 11-0 win over the Dryden Eagles in the annual Homecoming showdown.
Yep, you read that right—they won. Cue the violins! Cue the fat lady! Cue the whole orchestra!
The day ended perfectly, like a children’s fairy tale, for a team that last tasted victory in September, 2004, though it started out like a high school chemistry textbook—boring.
Aside from Peter Klyne falling on a fumble by Eagles quarterback Tyler Meilleur on the second play of the game, the first half was a woeful affair for the two squads that came in with identical 0-3 records.
“You’ve got 500 fans out here and I think we kind of lulled them to sleep for a lot of the game, but a ‘W’ is a ‘W’ and it is what it is,” said Muskie offensive co-ordinator Shane Beckett.
The Muskies, who were more psyched than Ms. Cleo because of a pep rally held beforehand, couldn’t take advantage of the fabulous field position their defence was giving them after stopping the Eagles’ offence on a regular basis.
They showed a flicker of promise when running back Terry Carmody plowed over a few would-be tacklers and took the ball down to the Eagles’ 13-yard line on the first play after a shanked punt.
Carmody took the next handoff for seven yards, but then was stuffed at the line on the next play.
That set up a third and three scenario at the six-yard line and Muskie head coach Bob Swing decided to go for it—that is, until Muskie lineman Joe Bodnar was called for a neutral zone infraction.
So in came the field goal unit and Steven Boileau connected on the 11-yard attempt for a 3-0 lead with 6:12 left in the first quarter.
But even before the game began, a story was unfolding that could have broken the backs of the Muskies— or been a blessing in disguise.
You see, Carmody, who was averaging 106 yards per game so far this season, suffered a knee injury during Tuesday’s practice that required a couple of trips to local physiotherapist Jeff Wright.
Whether the Muskies’ leading rusher could play would be a game-time decision.
“He’s feeling the pressure,” noted Beckett as Carmody could be seen in the school’s small gym prior to the pep rally, stretching all by his lonesome with only his thoughts to keep him company.
Carmody did play in the end, but only sparingly. He didn’t make any kick-off or punt returns, and didn’t play on the defensive side of the ball. Still, he contributed 91 yards on 19 carries despite a bad right knee.
But it was the play of Boileau that stuck out like a six-foot tall person standing in a crowd in Beijing.
The first half seemed to spell a recurring theme for the Muskies—wicked defence but an anemic offence. And it seemed to be the same for the second half until Boileau was able to scamper for 25 yards off a counter play early in the fourth quarter that began a domino effect of good things.
“You’re only going to be able to run those a couple of times a game and Coach Beckett did a good job in setting it up,” said Swing. “It was a huge play.”
“Everything worked right on that play,” agreed Boileau.
With the ball at the Eagles’ 42-yard line, the Muskies next got a minimal gain on a swing pass. But then Alex Wepruk was able to get a first down from a tough run that was Bryan Adams-like in how it “cut like a knife” through Dryden’s defence.
Later, on second and eight, Wepruk would get another big run—this one for 12 yards—which garnered a time-out from the Eagles’ sideline.
The stoppage didn’t help, though, as Carmody carried for five yards to the 11-yard line before Wepruk picked up another first down when he brought the ball to the three.
“I think as we get further into the season, the value of Alex helping in the running game will be enormous,” Swing said of Wepruk, who had 35 yards on six carries.
Added Beckett: “We knew they were going to be keying on Carmody, so why not give it to the first guy [Wepruk is a fullback] when they’re keying on the second guy,” reasoned Beckett.
“Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
This time it worked and when Carmody went in for the touchdown on second and one, no one was celebrating more than Beckett, who had shouldered the blame for the offence’s struggles in their first three games.
“I’m the 13th man,” he stressed. “Like the headline for the paper last week, ‘Offence lets down defence’ [after a 6-0 loss to the Sturgeon Creek Schooners], that wasn’t just them 12, I was at fault as anyone else.
“I’m on the field with them, it’s just that I can’t put on any pads,” he added.
Boileau booted the extra point to make the score 10-0.
“The nice thing about that series is that everyone was doing their job. And when everyone does what they’re supposed to do, it’s click, click, click,” said linemen coach Tony Geense.
What was even more impressive about the nine-play scoring drive was that it chipped almost five minutes off the clock to leave the Eagles with only 1:46 to make a comeback.
But when Henrique Rihas—a Brazilian foreign exchange student at Fort High—had his kick-off roll between the legs of the Dryden returner to their one-yard line, the notion of a comeback seemed unlikely.
And when you add in how ineffective the Eagles’ offence was—and has been—playing, it was pretty much impossible.
“Our defence has been a strength all year, but we’re still trying to find a strength offensively,” noted Dryden head coach Geoff Zilkans.
Dryden’s offence entered Friday’s contest averaging eight points per game (the Muskies were averaging only four points per game) and posted 105 yards on 15 carries from running back Stephen Hipfner.
But most of their yards came in the first half, with Meilleur chipping in 31 passing yards from a four-for-nine outing.
The Muskies wound up getting the ball back one more time, with Wepruk rounding out the scoring after booting a punt from the Eagles’ 36-yard line through the end zone.
That cemented the much-needed victory in front of a crowd that was much-needed for the black-and-gold’s morale.
“During most of our games, we’ve got the six people that are always there and that was pretty much it,” noted Muskie lineman D.J. Howells.
“And today, the sidelines and stands were full and people were parked on the side watching and wrapped around the end zone, and it really helped us today,” he added.
One player who had a smile stretched across his face was young Muskie quarterback Blake Wepruk, who had predicted a win after the previous week’s 19-4 loss to the Broncos.
And because of the win, he didn’t have to hide in Fort High’s shadows on Monday.
“There was a lot of pressure this past week,” the 14-year-old smiled. “But pressure is good.”
Wepruk was Joe Namath-like with his prediction (Namath had predicted a win for his N.Y. Jets over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III back in 1969)—and it was well-received from the rest of his teammates.
“It was a good prediction and it came true, and I believed it from the moment he said it,” said Peter Klyne, a captain on the team who collected one of the three fumbles the defence forced against Dryden.
Wepruk’s numbers versus the Eagles certainly were not Namath-like. He only completed three of 12 passes for 43 yards, with all three being caught by Boileau, who, ironically, had traded snaps with Wepruk at the beginning of the season.
But Boileau, seeing a lack of consistency in the receiving game, made a choice to help the team by making himself a receiver and such a move spoke volumes of the player who ran for 88 return yards, kicked a field goal and an extra point, and made two tackles.
Which goes back to why Carmody’s injury might have been a blessing in disguise because it showed the Muskies were capable of making plays without him.
“It’s a good thing because you can see that other guys can make plays, too, and they believe they can make plays and that we don’t have to rely on one person to bear the whole load,” said Swing.
Don’t be fooled, though. The Muskies would rather have Carmody in the lineup and they will need him—and everyone else—clicking like they did in the second half for this coming Friday’s game against the Maples Marauders (3-1).
Kick-off is slated for 4 p.m. at Muskie Field.
“This win is huge for us,” said secondary coach Greg Allan. “Like I said before, when you get used to losing, you find ways to lose rather than to win, and today, we certainly found the right way to win.”
Last Friday’s win was an ever-so important one for the Muskies because unlike the Kas Vidruk Division (formerly known as the ‘AA’ conference), the Andy Currie Division (formerly the ‘A’ conference) has 11 teams but only eight advance to the playoffs.
The Muskies are now tied with Sturgeon Creek and Tec Voc at 1-3 while six other teams have better records (five are tied for first place with a 3-1 mark).
“There was an absolute huge amount of pressure to win this game in order to make the playoffs—there’s no doubt to that,” said Swing.
“The teams we need to beat to get into the playoffs are the teams we have to play, so that’s always important to be able to control your own destiny,” he added.
After this Friday’s game against Maples, the Muskies will face Tec Voc in Winnipeg on Oct. 13 and then play their cross-over game against the Oak Park Raiders of the Kas Vidruk Division on Oct. 21, which will be their last regular-season game.
And if the Muskie defence is able to sustain the way they’ve been playing, then the destiny they hope to fulfill could become a reality.
“That’s a beautiful thing—a shutout for the win,” said Muskie defensive co-ordinator Lou Gauthier (the last time the black-and-gold garnered a shutout was in an 18-0 win over the Schooners in a pre-season game last season).
The Muskie defence is known for doing certain things that are deemed the most fundamental in football—tackling, run stuffing, quarterback sacking, ball stripping—with such clock-punching regularity that they wear down the opposing offences.
And though they make mistakes (who doesn’t?), they bend but don’t break, noted Gauthier.
“My defence is designed to bend, but not to break, and today [against Dryden] we did exactly what we wanted to do,” he added.
Bryan Gustafson is the leading tackler for the team with 22.5 in four games.
This may be the start of something great, but on the other hand, it might be the start of nothing at all. It’s in their hands now.
They are “the master of their own destiny” as Beckett put it, and now that they’ve gotten that sweet taste of victory, it will be seen this Friday if their stomachs are full or if they want to come back for seconds, and then thirds, and then fourths.
“We’re starting to look ahead,” said Gauthier, “and now we’ve got hope.”
Having at least 500 people in attendance? Memorable.
Rekindling an old NorWOSSA rivalry? Historical.
Winning your first Homecoming game in six years and gaining your first win of the season in the process? Priceless.
After 371 days, you can stop counting.