An amazing week in the postseason saw the two trophy finals and the second national semi-final taking place. All three games were exceptionally tight, each coming down to single score victories, and causing more grey hairs for the coaches than I’m sure they’d like to admit!
East Kilbride Pirates vs Nottingham Caesars
Well, what a game. The last two undefeated Junior teams in the nation squared off to determine who would come out as Kings of the North, fighting tooth and nail to the very last. As the dust cleared, the East Kilbride Pirates emerged victorious 20-12, and will now move on to the National Final.
East Kilbride came out of the gate hot, scoring on their opening possession, with Quarterback Sam Montgomerie using his feet to get the job done. The two-point conversion was caught by Struan Bailey to make the score 8-0, and give the impression that it was going to be a long day for the boys from the Midlands.
The Pirates’ offence could not capitalise on this early score, however, with the Caesars’ defence playing hard-nosed, well-disciplined football. Rookie Jordan Fearon-Lee had yet another incredible game on the defensive line, along with Mashood Moiden, limiting EKP’s running game and applying pressure throughout. The first year phenom added statistical merit to his general disruption too – forcing a crucial fumble and recovering two more later in the game, to keep his side in it.
Whilst the Caesars defence had seemingly found their groove, the offence could not work out a way through the vaunted East Kilbride front. Running plays were stopped at source by the formidable line of Mark Stewart and Kyle Gold, with heavy-hitting Mark Cochrane backing them up from the linebacker spot. Unfortunately, in an attempt to revitalise the offence before the half with pass plays, the Caesars were picked off by Declan Kelly who beautifully undercut the receiver’s route and returned the ball for 6 points.
The game set into a rhythm after the half, with both defences maintaining their dominance. Another broken play for the Caesars proved their final undoing, as a pass that was ruled backwards was recovered by Pirates’ end Craig Sanders for another defensive touchdown.
With the score at 20-0, it appeared as though the game was over. However, the Caesars never gave up, and continued to play: a trait that got them into the semi-final in the first place. This never-say-die attitude and eventually bore fruit, as Brad ‘Malia’ Martin blocked an East Kilbride punt, returning it for the touchdown. Martin’s special teams prowess was on display again immediately, with his kick-off pinning the Pirates within their own 10. The Caesars defence then turned on the style, creating another turnover at the half-yard line, setting up an easy score for QB Tom Henley on the sneak.
With 3:40 left on the clock and the score poised at 20-12, the Caesars got the ball once more. With momentum behind them, the Caesars offence finally found a way to move the ball. Quick passes to Bàlint Molnàr and Alex Stocks marched the Caesars up the field, creating a nervy ending to regulation. However, an offensive pass interference call at the East Kilbride goal line stalled the drive and effectively ended the hopes of the Caesars.
Both teams gave their all, and were excellent examples of what the Junior game can be. The Pirates move on to face the London Blitz in the Britball final, whilst the Caesars will face the Birmingham Lions in a battle for both Midlands supremacy and third place nationally.
Solent Seahawks vs Hertfordshire Cheetahs
In the Southern Trophy final, the Solent Seahawks faced the last-minute stand-ins the Hertfordshire Cheetahs, in a game that some thought would be fairly one-sided. The Seahawks came into the game white-hot, off the back of two dominating wins, whilst the Cheetahs had suffered a potentially demoralising loss to the Birmingham Lions. However, that was far from the case, as both teams fought hard, with the Solent outfit eventually eking out an 8-6 victory.
It was a defensive dominated showing all day in this one, with consistent three-and-outs and turnovers for both sides. In the first half, the Cheetahs’ O struggled against dominant performances from Harry Elton-Dobbin and Hamish Mackinnon along the Solent defensive front. The Seahawks, meanwhile, were able to move the ball up the field, until they reached the red-zone. When the field shortened, the Cheetahs D stiffened and DBs Johanne Remigio and James Abegglen shone, forcing three turnovers between them.
Going into the second half, with the score at 0-0, it was clear that key players would have to step up and make the impact themselves. Enter Sas Sarreshteh, defensive end and running back for the Seahawks. With the Cheetahs O forced deep into their own territory, the fourth year player forced a safety, and then followed it up with a rushing touchdown of his own.
Hertfordshire were not without their own big performances, however, nor were they willing to accept defeat so easily. A quick drive in the fourth quarter saw Tom Best hit Jack Stodel on a swing for a touchdown, to draw the Cheetahs to within two points. Within the final two minutes, Francois ‘Frenchy’ Earp, who drew effusive praise from the Solent coaches, recovered a fumbled snap to set up a nervy end to regulation. However, it was not to be, as a miscommunication led to a fourth-down spike for the Cheetahs, and a Solent victory.
Whilst Solent came away as victors on the day, it was clearly a day for celebration for both teams. Solent achieved their most successful season ever, finishing in the top six for Junior and top ten for youth, setting them up well for the coming seasons. The Cheetahs, too, have achieved a higher finish than ever before, and with few graduates it is clear that both teams are in the ascendency!
Manchester Titans vs Highland Wildcats
In a game of notoriously high- powered offences, it was the defensive side of the ball for both teams that largely came out on top in this matchup on Sunday. The Highland Wildcats continued their success against English teams, once again overcoming their opponents South of the border 18-15.
The Titans started the game off on the front foot, returning the opening kick-off to the Highland 10-yard line. However, their offence could not capitalise on the opportunity, and instead Manchester opted for one of the rarest plays in Junior football: a field goal. The game then settled into a defensive rut, with the Manchester defensive front of Ben Kwasnik and Robert Duck limiting Highland to a paltry two first downs in the half, whilst Manchester failed to extend their lead.
To start the second half, the Wildcats seemed to find the form on offence that has made them such a feared outfit over recent years. However, a botched snap at the one-yard line was recovered by Spanish U19s Linebacker Uday Suruzzaman and returned 99 yards for a touchdown.
Another two picks, by Lewis Parker and Ryan Weaver, in the third further stifled the Highland offence, and set up another score for the Titans, putting them in a commanding situation in the fourth.
However, there is an intangible trait amongst some players which means that they perform their best in times of great pressure. If this wasn’t already clear, it seems that Sunday confirms the Euan Crawford is one such player. The Wildcats’ signal caller led his unit up the field three times in the closing quarter to break the hearts of the Manchester outfit, with rookie receiver Lewis Taylor catching the crucial hail Mary as time expired.
The Wildcats now make it two pieces of silverware in two years, and will hope that next year they can capitalise and finally make it to the National Final. Manchester, meanwhile, have had a great season, but will hope to learn from their struggles and emulate their senior team’s successes next campaign!