‘You start to feel suffocated’

It was the 10th day of the Tishri last Thursday—and that meant it was Yom Kippur.
It is a day observed by those who follow the Jewish faith. And while millions took the day, which is called the Day of Atonement, to atone themselves of their sins they had made against God over the past year, the Muskie football team also found themselves atoning for past errors made in the season in the fourth quarter of their game against the Tec Voc Hornets in Winnipeg.
It was a game considered “a playoff game” by head coach Bob Swing because of its significance to the black-and-gold advancing to the post-season (they had entered with a 1-4 record).
And they had played their best football of the season in the first half by taking a 14-0 lead on a pair of Terry Carmody rushing touchdowns (one was for 35 yards and the other from four yards out).
And things were feeling good.
“After we scored, you could feel it on the bench that finally we were clicking and finally, all the things we’ve been saying are being done and it’s happening,” noted Muskie offensive co-ordinator Shane Beckett.
But then came the second half.
A poor exchange between Muskie quarterback Blake Wepruk and centre Peter Klyne gave the Hornets the ball, which they took advantage of by getting a score in the middle of the third quarter.
But the Muskies settled themselves down.
Alex Wepruk and Bryan Gustafson were putting pressure on Tec Voc’s quarterback almost at will from their outside linebacker positions.
Meanwhile, Tec Voc’s Joe Osiname, who had been the Andy Currie Division’s player of the week the previous week (he had 225 yards and four touchdowns in a 33-14 win over Dryden), was being held in check by a Muskie defence led by Steve Boileau, Joel Herbert, and Jesse Bowes that only was allowing eight points a game in their past four games.
And—get this—the offence was producing.
That was evident from them garnering a little over 300 yards of total offence in the game, which saw Carmody come through on his promise to play his best game of the season against the Hornets after the previous week’s disparaging 7-0 loss to the Maples Marauders.
And he did just that by collecting 205 yards rushing from a yeoman-like 28 carries.
“We used to think he was busy before and people would tell us, ‘Hey, you’ve got to have more to the offence than just Terry Carmody,’ and that’s when he had 19 carries,” noted Beckett.
Blake Wepruk, meanwhile, went two for seven passing for 29 yards and also had 14 yards rushing on three carries.
When you look at the 40 carries they had, that’s a testament to how well the offence was moving the ball. But it didn’t result in points because of mistakes made at critical times of the game—and penalties didn’t help much, either.
The Muskies had 15 penalty flags thrown against them, which is a ridiculously high number of infractions that cost them 115 yards.
Other than the three defensive holding penalties, which is a rare call in high school football, one flag that hurt the team immensely came with five minutes left in the game when Alex Wepruk was ejected for spiking the ball in frustration.
The only problem is he spiked the ball after having his ankle twisted during a scrum. But instead of taking his anger out on the Hornets’ player, he took it out on the football, which bounced and hit the Hornets player’s unmentionables.
That took Wepruk from the field, where he was as effective as a Lawrence Taylor, and into the locker-room where he could not be used.
“It was a TSN turning points for sure because they started moving the ball to that side, and we didn’t have our main punter out there so they’re getting the ball back with good field position,” said Beckett.
Wepruk had seven tackles and 42 yards from six carries before he left.
Matt DiPiero took the snaps as a punter and did well considering he doesn’t practice at the position. But that inexperience by the Grade 9 player showed when the Hornets lined up in mid-field with under two minutes left in the game.
“We had our foot on their throat and we let it off,” said Beckett noted.
The Hornets, by this time, were taking advantage of Wepruk’s dismissal and running it effectively—and found themselves inside the Muskies’ 10-yard line with five seconds to go.
“They’re going for the end zone,” said Beckett.
That they did. And when the ball touched the hands of the Hornets’ receiver, a couple of Muskie defenders pounced on him to force the ball loose. But . . . a flag.
“They find an open man who gets his hands on the football and we have two guys collide on the receiver to try and break up the pass, and it was called pass interference,” Beckett said of the questionable call.
But did the receiver touch the ball first before being tackled by the Muskie defenders, which is a legal play?
“We were across the field so it’s a tough vantage point,” replied Beckett, trying to tip-toe around the question.
But you know what you saw?
“I think he had touched the ball first. That’s the referee’s call and he made the call he did,” Beckett said.
That gave the Hornets the ball at the one-yard line with one last play (a game can’t end on a defensive penalty) and sure enough, the Hornets punched it in for a 14-14 tie, which crushed the Muskies’ spirits like a truck driver dispensing an empty can of beer.
“They worked so hard and had something stolen from them, and that’s heartbreaking after the amount of work and effort they’ve put in,” said Swing.
“Over the years, I’ve won some big games and lost some games, but this game out of any game, really, really sticks with me,” he added. “I’ve never coached a game where something you knew didn’t turn out right.
“I had the uneasy feeling because I saw what was happening, and in the end, there was nothing we could do to control it,” Swing remarked.
So the calls by the refs were questionable?
“You need to talk to some people that were there other than the coaches or the players, it was a varying disparity in what happened,” replied Swing (it should be noted the commissioner of the Winnipeg High School League and the league’s head referee were in attendance).
“Coach Geense [who is the Muskie lineman coach] is a pastor—God bless his soul—and at one point the officiating almost drove Pastor Geense to drink, smoke, and swear all at the same time,” noted Swing.
“And if that’s what it did to Pastor Geense, you can imagine what it did to the rest of us,” he added.
This called for some investigation—not for the sake of prying, but for the science of information gathering. Beckett said the whole thing “felt like something out of a movie.”
Maybe that movie was similar to “The Replacements,” which sees Gene Hackman playing a NFL coach who, at a meeting, asks his players what they are scared of.
Keanu Reeves, who plays the quarterback in the movie, answers “quicksand,” and how the more you try to get out, the more you get stuck.
“You start to feel suffocated,” agreed Beckett. “That’s basically how that fourth quarter felt like for me—it was out of a movie and just saw it coming.”
Things got worse since Wepruk, who is a crucial piece in the Muskies’ puzzle, which is still under construction but has made significant progress the past few weeks, looks to be suspended for the next game, which is mandatory after a player gets thrown out of a game, but that may change later this week.
And things got even worse when the Sturgeon Creek Schooners, who were tied with the Muskies with a 1-4 record and also fighting for a playoff spot, won their game Friday against the 2-3 Churchill Bulldogs.
That pretty much squandered any chance the Muskies have of getting into the playoffs.
The Schooners, who were averaging only four points offensively a game, put up 32 points against the Bulldogs in their 32-20 win, which has pretty much sunk the Muskies completely into that quicksand.
“There’s always that pit feeling in your stomach that it can’t go your way anytime you have to depend on somebody else,” said Beckett.
The Muskies now will play the Oak Park Raiders, a perennial power in the league. They are 5-1 in the Kas Vidruk Division and easily handled the Kelvin Clippers by a score of 59-0 last Friday.
So the Raiders, who beat the Muskies 46-7 when they faced each other last season, no doubt will come into the game confident. And, in fact, Beckett is counting on the Raiders to take them for granted—hopefully.
“They’re going to come in lacksidasical because we’re the ninth-place team in the second division, so why should they take us seriously?” mused Beckett.
“Don’t get me wrong, they don’t want to lose to us, but we have an opportunity,” he stressed.
Because it is a cross-division game, the game only counts towards the standings for the winning team, so a loss would not change the Muskies’ record.
But they need to win, and win big, though that might be too high of a bar to climb against the league’s best defence that has allowed only five points each game.
And other things would have to happen, like a Sturgeon Creek and Dryden loss this week.
But to go back to the Yom Kippur reference, the Muskies would have never found themselves in this situation if they hadn’t made key mistakes in their previous games against the Marauders (7-0), the Schooners (6-0), the Kenora Broncos (19-4), and the Hornets (14-14), which were all games they could have won.
“It’s like waiting for your kid to start walking,” said Swing. “You can see the signs and you don’t know quite when, and you’re just waiting until that light turns on.”
And though the Muskies made some definite improvements to their offence, to go along with their always stingy defence, it might be too little, too late—and they know it.
“Terry [Carmody] came off [after the first touchdown] and he wasn’t even happy,” said Beckett. “Because the look in his eyes said, ‘I should’ve been doing this for the last five weeks.’”