The first city football title in more than 10 years for St. Charles College might not have been in the "Cards," but that didn't stop the New Sudbury history-steeped school from giving the Lo-Ellen Park Knights all they could handle Saturday evening at the James Jerome Sports Complex, with a SDSSAA banner on the line.
In easily the most competitive championship affair in recent memory, the Knights overcame a 10-7 half-time deficit, striking for a pair of third-quarter touchdowns en route to a 28-17 win over the Cardinals.
Lo-Ellen broke the ice, with running back Matt Glass capping off a drive to which he was a frequent contributor, darting home from the one.
A missed point after was offset a few minutes later when the Knights sailed a punt through the end zone, giving the favourites a 7-0 lead.
With quarterback Connor Chezzi sidelined with an injury, St. Charles dropped a 48-7 decision to the Knights back on Sept. 28. They were adament that this rematch, with Chezzi back at the helm, would be different.
Early in the second quarter, the Cards pulled even as Chezzi rolled out wide from the four, finding a path to the end zone.
Kicker Brad Williams tied the game with the convert and would later give St. Charles their first lead of the contest, splitting the uprights from 34 yards out.
Lo-Ellen, which looked impressive in reeling off five straight victories before falling to Notre-Dame in the regular season finale, looked to cut into the 10-7 deficit before the half, marching on the strength of the running game of Colin Donaldson and QB Brady Ellsworth, with an Ellsworth to Adam Favot strike mixed in for good measure.
But with just 22 seconds to play in the first half, Ellsworth was picked off on the goal line as St Charles defender Jakob Graham went airborne to make the catch.
Thankfully for Lo-Ellen coach Kevin Ellsworth, his son, the young man guiding the Knights' offense, wasn't about to let this miscue keep him down.
After finding Aaron Lachapelle and Jonah Blatt on the receiving end of passes for 25 and 13 yards, QB Ellsworth sailed a perfect throw that Favot hauled in, with his finger tips, in full stride.
The play resulted both in a 56 yard pass and run touchdown, and a notable swing in momentum. Before the third quarter would end, fullback Jeff Neault would increase the Lo-Ellen lead to 21-10, carrying a St. Charles defender or two with him, over the goal line, from eight yards out.
To the pleasure of much of the crowd of several hundred local football fans who lined the smaller-than-needed grandstands, the Cards countered quickly. Chezzi hit Jake Carrier on a quick out pattern, with the receiver doing the rest, sprinting 54 yards down to the 12-yard line.
On the last play of quarter number three, Ian MacDonald lined up as quarterback in the shotgun, taking the snap and running in from one yard out.
The see-saw affair seemed destined to come down to the final minutes of play, as the defensive units traded stops. But the Knights had one more drive left inside, starting on their own side of the midfield stripe.
A nice catch by Blatt and a 23-yard run by Glass would set the table for a second short touchdown run from Neault, providing his teammates with some much-needed breathing room with just 5:17 remaining to play.
Slotted as a defender when the 2012 campaign started, Neault was more than happy to make the early season move in positions. "I started off as a linebacker, but the coach started practicing me as fullback, because I'm a bigger body and could pound the ball," said Neault.
"Personally, I like fullback better," he added. "It's not much of a glory position, but it's a position that is huge for the team." If Lo-Ellen had a slightly different look that when the season commenced, so too did their opponents, deprived of the services of their pivot during the very first game of the year.
"We knew that we had to come out level-headed after beating them the first game," said Neault. "St. Charles had a new quarterback, so we didn't know exactly what to expect. Last time, they were more of a run team, but this time, they were more of a mix."
Known for his emotionality on the football field, Neault, and his mates, understood that there is a delicate balancing act that comes into play, perhaps moreso for this particular Lo-Ellen crew which was penalized, during the course of the 2012 campaign, as much as any edition of the Knights in recent memory.
"When you're playing aggressive like we do, there is a line you have to be aware of," said Neault. "When you're playing too aggressive, then you get all those penalties. If you don't play aggressive enough, teams will be able to break runs on you - so we have to find that perfect level between the two."
Ellsworth, who was victimized at times this year by an inordinate amount of dropped balls, dealt with no such curse on Saturday. In fact, somewhat ironically, the Lo-Ellen receiving corps were arguably as sure-handed as they were at any point over the past few months, despite the cold that would seem to make catching a football anything but an easy task.
Honoured as the MVP of the championship game, he is undoubtedly hoping for more of the same when the Knights travel to Sault Ste. Marie next Saturday, battling the St. Mary's Knights in the NOSSA semifinal encounter.
"We've never been to NOSSA before, so it's going to be a learning experience for all of us," said Neault. "But it should be something that we'll always remember."