WHSFL semi-final preview

By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)

Feature photo: Brody Lawson and the St. Paul’s 1 Crusaders will do battle with Dakota in a rematch of last year’s ANAVETS Bowl.

The field has been trimmed to 12 as the WHSFL semi-finals commence tomorrow night. Below is a breakdown of every matchup. Please note that every contest is $5, with kids 12 and under getting in free.

DIVISION 1: Dakota Lancers (4-2-1, #3 seed in Potter) vs St. Paul’s 1 Crusaders (6-1, #1 seed in Potter), Friday at 5 p.m. at IGF

The Lancers will be looking for revenge against a Crusaders team that topped them in week one, as well as last year in the ANAVETS Bowl.

In their week one contest, St. Paul’s 1 was able to put up 23 unanswered points in the second quarter while keeping Dakota off the scoreboard all throughout. Mental mistakes played a factor in the contest, as the Lancers botched a snap on a punt that led to a touchdown and also missed a field goal that would have opened the scoring in the first quarter.

Crusaders senior pivot Brody Lawson has been a thorn in the side of Dakota for each of the past two years and he will look for even more success on Thursday. The MVP of last season’s ANAVETS Bowl is a threat with both his arm and legs and will need to be contained in at least one of those departments if the Lancers are going to have any sort of chance of snapping St. Paul’s two-year bowl streak.

Dakota will counter Lawson with an athletic defence that’s led by their front seven. Linebackers Josh Ma, Raffaele Caligiuri and Josh Paulic, as well as defensive linemen Jordan Friesen (Division 1 Rookie of the Year in 2017), Ethan Papineau and Daniel Okedara will attempt to make life rather difficult for the cool-headed pivot.

The x-factor in this contest can be found on Dakota’s offence, in running back Peter Orajekwe, who didn’t play in the week one contest. The former Division 3 Rookie of the Year with Churchill provides a balanced option for the Lancers and senior pivot Aidan ‘Romo’ Campbell — who had his best game of the season last week against Sisler.

Getting past the St. Paul’s 1 defence will be no easy task however, as they only gave up 21 points in the regular season, pitching five shutouts overall. The linebacking trio of senior Tyler Grom, junior Nathan Carabatsakis and sophomore Nic Pereira leads the way. All three players are athletic and seem to make key plays at the perfect moment. They are well coached as usual and have benefited from the tutelage of Crusaders/Bisons alum DJ Lalama, who is helping the team this year due to an injury that kept him from playing for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL.

Dakota RB Peter Orajekwe didn’t play the first time the Crusaders and Lancers met, and could be a big factor on Friday.

DIVISION 1: Garden City Fighting Gophers (5-2, #2 seed in Potter) vs Vincent Massey WPG Trojans (6-0-1, #1 seed in Gustafson), Friday at 7:30 p.m. at IGF

This matchup will see four Bison commits go against each other, in Vincent Massey’s Breydon Stubbs (running back) and Vaughn Lloyd (receiver) and Garden City’s Jarrett Alcaraz (quarterback/defensive back) and Elijah Rivera (running back/defensive back). The Trojans are looking to return to the ANAVETS Bowl after getting upended in the semi-finals by St. Paul’s 1 last year, while the Fighting Gophers are back in the final four for the first time since 2015.

Vincent Massey rolled to the top seed in division 1 thanks to a balanced attack that scored over 40 points in six of eight games this season, including a 49-7 victory in the quarter-finals over Steinbach last week. Senior pivot Jackson Tachinski — who’s on the Bisons radar as a potential quarterback of the future — leads the charge. He threw for over 1100 yards this season and has an incredibly high football IQ, as evidenced by his 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s supported by Stubbs, a powerful back who can run inside or outside the tackles, as well as speedy receivers Shad Nkiasi-Nsedwir and Jayden Zimmer. Lloyd went down with an injury a few weeks ago and won’t be in this contest, but has also been invaluable as a speed demon in the slot.

The Fighting Gophers are paced defensively by a veteran secondary that have tremendous chemistry due to playing with each other for a number of years, dating back to the North Winnipeg Nomads. That group includes Alcaraz and Rivera — who man the boundary side — as well as Everrett Findley and Reese Francey. All four players have great range and athleticism and will likely be key cogs once more on Friday.

Alcaraz mans the controls of the Fighting Gophers offence as well as their quarterback. The pivot is incredibly elusive and can keep plays alive with his feet. He’s got a well-rounded receiving corps in Findley — who had a great game against St. Paul’s 1 in week seven — as well as fellow senior Payton Yakimishyn and vertical presence Kaiden Bannon.

The Trojans secondary was up to the task last week against Sawyer Thiessen and a pass heavy Steinbach squad, and will look for an equally impressive performance this week from defensive backs such as Tegan Simon, Brandon Kamenz and Quinn Adolfson, who combined for five interceptions in the regular season. Fellow DB Sam Oyetunji is another player to watch. He had three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries this year, including the game-ender against St. Paul’s 1 in week three.

Defensive back Teagan Simon (25) is a player to keep an eye out for for the Trojans.

DIVISION 2: Portage Trojans (4-3, #3 seed in Bramwell) vs River East Kodiaks (6-1, #1 seed in Bramwell), Thursday at 5 p.m. at IGF

This game will be a rematch of week six, which the Kodiaks won 39-16. If the Trojans are going to be able to pull the upset, they’re going to need another big game from running back Kaiden Banfield — who is a top contender for division 2 Rookie of the Year. One of the standouts during Team Manitoba’s U16 tryouts this summer, he ran roughshod over West K in the quarter-finals and is particularly dangerous between the tackles.

The Kodiaks defence — who pitched a shutout last week against Miles Mac — will need to be strong in the interior defensive line as well as in the linebacking corps. Ethan Topping (linebacker/safety), Spenser Pilon (linebacker), Joshua Desjarlais (linebacker) and Landon Colbourn (linebacker) are all players to keep an eye out for.

Defensively, the Trojans are led by Canada Cup member Carter Little on the defensive line. He was tied for the team lead in sacks this season and was also the leading tackler. He and his teammates will need to be on their a-game in order to limit Bison commit Sammy Hezekiah, who can make plays with both his arm and legs at the pivot position.

River East QB/HB Sammy Hezekiah is the heart and soul of the Kodiaks team.

DIVISION 2: Murdoch MacKay Clansmen (5-1-1, #2 seed in Bramwell) vs Kelvin Clippers (6-1, #1 seed in Vidruk), Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at IGF

This contest will pit two of the top pure passers in the division, in Murdoch’s Carter Kutzan and Kelvin’s Daniel Moroz — who was the Rookie of the Year in 2017.

Kutzan had over 1100 all-purpose yards and holds a slight advantage in the running department, as the Clansmen like to utilize the read-option rather frequently due to their pivot’s athleticism. He gets great protection up front, led by Liam Sobering and Dawson Waldner and has plenty of weapons to throw to, including Christian Kull and Luke Wood — who is also one of the hardest hitters on the team on defence. Running back Preston Kull is also dangerous, and can catch teams sleeping at times due to the threat of Kutzan’s arm.

On the other side is Moroz, who threw for over 1200 yards. He has arguably the most well-rounded receiving corps in the division in Brock Gates, Robin Brooks, Liam Stephenson and Adam Fast, who all had at least 230 yards in the regular season. Additionally, running back Lamont Evert offers the team a change of pace at running back. He’s made his carries count this year, averaging 7.1 yards for a team that prefers to air it out.

The Clippers hold the heavy advantage defensively however, as they shut out five teams in the regular season. The team also had 30 sacks this year, 17 of which came from the fearsome trio of defensive linemen Isaiah Letander (Bison commit), Dylan Hess and Treyshaun Bollers.

Murdoch QB Carter Kutzan can make plays with both his arm and legs.

DIVISION 3: Fort Frances Muskies (4-2, #2 seed in Currie) vs Elmwood Giants (5-1, #1 seed in Currie), Thursday at 5 p.m. at Eastside Eagles Field

This contest is a rematch of week three, which the Muskies won 14-8. It was also the only blemish on the Giants record this season.

Quarterback Brady Meeks and running back Cam Bowles accounted for the two Muskies touchdowns the last time the pair of teams met, with the latter rushing for 116 yards in the contest. The former also had an excellent game in the quarter-finals against Maples last week, throwing for over 250 yards and will look for similar success against the Giants on Thursday.

Look for linebackers Owen Giancola and Isaiah Binns, as well as defensive end Jeremy Hampshire to have solid games for Elmwood in an attempt to negate the Muskies dynamic duo. The trio of defenders combined for 67 tackles during the regular season, as well as three interceptions.

On the other side of the equation is Evyn Melville, a behemoth of a back who scored at least two touchdowns in every game except week three. His 17 scores broke the division 3 record for majors in a season and he also ran for 1180 yards total. The offence runs through him, and Muskies linebackers such as Colten Allen — who led the team in tackles in the regular season — as well as Brett Allan, who had a pick six last week, will need to play at the top of their game.

DIVISION 3: Churchill Bulldogs (4-2, #3 seed in Currie) vs St. John’s Tigers (5-1, # seed in Currie), Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Eastside Eagles Field

The Tigers got the best of Churchill when the two teams met in week three of the regular season, thanks to a well-rounded defensive performance and 112 yards passing from pivot Myles Kakewash, who is protected by one of the league’s best offensive lines.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, running back/linebacker William Barnsdale has been on a tear ever since week five and is a prime contender for Defensive Player of the Year. His seven fumble recoveries broke the division record, while he had 28.5 tackles and two interceptions over weeks five and six. He’ll need to be just as strong this week in order to help contain Kakewash, who had 13 touchdowns on the year.

Barnsdale also paced the Bulldogs offence with 703 yards and a 10.7 yards-per-carry average, but had solid support from pivot Dallas Reis and receivers Micheal Blackford and Pedro Quadros.

On the other side is a Tigers defence that pitched two shutouts in the regular season and gave up more than ten points just twice. Defensive back Asher Wood — who stands at 6’3″ — played a huge factor with a division-leading five interceptions, while fellow defensive back Riley Mercer led the team with 30 tackles.

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