Big football crowd raises Cougars' spirits

If they only took into account the final score, the inaugural Spirit Bowl was a bit of a downer for the Prince George Polars.

The College Heights Cougars hammered them 40-0 in front of about a 1,000 witnesses at Masich Place Stadium, perhaps the all-time biggest Prince George crowd ever to watch a high school football game.

But that healthy audience of predominantly Polar supporters made the first exhibition game of the Northern Conference season a special occasion for both teams.

The buzz emanating from the stands fired up the Cougars and the festive atmosphere all those students and parents created helped take the sting out of the loss for the Polars, who had most of student population backing them, with class dismissed for the weekend in their adjacent school up the hill.

Throughout the game the College Heights offensive line - Lucas Jacobs, Alex Ribeiro, Ryan Sandhu, Ian Hall and Alec Graham - gave quarterback Jerome Erickson the luxury of time and plenty of real estate to work with, which opened up plenty of options downfield and four Cougars found end-zone rewards.

College Heights got the ball first and scored on its opening drive, a 56-yard pitch-and-run from Erickson to Austin Adams. Erickson booted the convert to make it a 7-0 game.

The first Polar drive stalled and the Cougars quickly got into the red zone and finished with a six-yard Alex Thanos touchdown run. The Cougars gained possession to start the second quarter and Thanos took off on a run that moved the ball 55 yards, but the play was called back by a holding penalty. On the next play, Hayden Matheson broke a few tackles and took to the house with a 65-yard run which made it 20-0.

"That crowd was amazing," said the Grade 11 Matheson.

"We heard it was going to be all PGSS kids but we came out and heard nothing but cheers. The adrenaline just starts pumping, you're ready to play a football game when that happens. We prepared all through spring and going into August we worked out butts off and definitely came out and executed today. It's what we expected, we worked our butts off and if you look at the scoreboard, it shows it."

The third quarter began with Erickson calling his own number and he scored from seven yards out. Erickson showed his arm strength late in the quarter when he spotted Thanos in the end zone and threw a dart from 25 yards away to nail his sure-handed receiver.

In the fourth quarter, Austin Adams caught a TD pass from 18 yards out, which Erickson converted to cap the scoring.

Polars quarterback Dillan Brandner, who played on the Polars senior team as a Grade 10 player last year, handed the ball often to fullback Brayden Michell, one of only a few Grade 12 holdovers from last year's P.G. Bowl champions. The workhorse Michell touched off a promising drive with a 17-yard scamper late in the opening half and followed up with a short run that left PGSS with the ball on the College Heights 18-yard line but they ran out of time and the first half ended.

"It was the first big game of our season and we were up against a serious team here, they're very skilled and I guess we weren't ready for this one, but we tried out best out there," said the 16-year-old Brandner. "The team was looking pretty shabby at the beginning, we only had 12 guys, but just in the past week we brought it up to 19 or 20. I lot of the new guys don't know what they're doing but we're trying to teach them the best to make a good team again, like last year."

Most of the Cougars played together the past two seasons on the junior team and they've been practicing the past month for their first senior season. That polish and seasoning proved overwhelming to the Polars, who lost most of their senior players last year to graduation.

"We definitely have growing pains and things to learn from, we have a lot of guys who need to learn the game of football," said Michell, 17.

"I liked having all the fans but it sucks to disappoint them.

"This game is going to humble us, some of the new guys thought it would turn out differently and underestimated our opponents. I'm going to try and get these guys' heads right and not let it get to them and let it beat them down. It's just growing pains."

The Cougars want to host their own Spirit Bowl next year at College Heights Secondary School, which would give them home crowd advantage and the Polars said they would gladly make the trek to serve as their opponents.

"We have to do this again," said Cougars head coach Grant Erickson. "I'm hoping to talk to our (school administrators) to see if we can host one at College Heights next year. It's just fantastic. High school is all about making memories and they're not going to forget this."

The Polars were obviously disappointed by the lopsided outcome but they weren't hanging their heads after the game and came out of the room in high spirits after singing Happy Birthday to head coach Pat Bonnett, who turns 67 on Wednesday.

"I told them at the end, I said, 'if you don't quit, we're not quitting on you, we'll get better,'" said Bonnett.

"We have guys who came out on Tuesday, the first time they've ever played football, and they were in positions they didn't know where they were going. But that's just an excuse. Unfortunately the guys didn't come out when we started practicing back in August.

"But it was a good learning experience. They will grow exponentially by actually competing in a game, versus practices. We always tell our kids, 'if you come with a positive attitude and energy and enthusiasm, we'll teach you how to play the game,' and there's a lot of teaching left to do. A losing game builds character, so we just built a lot of character."

The Polars will have a week or so to work out some of the bugs before their next exhibition game next Saturday in Vanderhoof against the Nechako Valley Vikings. The Cougars will play their next game that same day in Salmon Arm.

The Kelly Road Roadrunners will host top-ranked double-A varsity G.W. Graham of Chilliwack Grizzlies in an exhibition tilt next Saturday at Masich.