By Craig Campbell, News Staff
Quarterback Jeremy Haggarty ran for 172-yards and two touchdowns as the Highland Hawks senior boys football team broke a 26-year title drought with an 18-2 win over Churchill Bulldogs in the Division Two city championship, Thursday night.
Highland finally won the big game, after three trips to the senior tier two final since they won a Wentworth County title in 1985. They lost in the finals in 2002, 2003 and 2006. Highland’s junior team also lost title games in 2008 and 2010.
The undefeated Hawks were the favourites heading into the title fight on Nov. 17, having outscored opponents 174 to 20 en route to a 6-0 regular season, then topping Barton Barons 26-7 in the semi-final a week earlier. Highland bested Churchill in their regular season meeting 28-14.
Head coach Mike Samson, who developed a strong football program when he took over coaching duties 14 years ago, said a strong and focused start was important in Thursday’s final – because Highland was favoured.
“If you give them hope, they think they can win,” Samson said.
Highland won the opening coin toss at McMaster University’s Ron Joyce stadium, and elected to kick-off to Churchill and receive the ball in the second half – which forced the Bulldogs to kick into the wind on a night when the temperature dipped to eight degrees below zero with 30 km/hr winds.
The Hawks defence stood tall, holding Churchill’s offence back. When Highland got the ball on their opponent’s 29-yard line, Haggarty took over. Four straight carries resulted in the first touchdown of the game. Craig Magill’s convert was good and the Hawks took a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing kick-off, Highland’s Evan Dunlop sent the ball 65-yards through the corner of the end zone for a single point and an 8-0 lead.
Churchill’s offence appeared to be getting in gear late in the opening quarter. But right after a big 30-yard run by the Bulldogs, Austin Temperley of Highland intercepted a pass to stop the momentum.
Late in the second quarter, a 13-yard pass to Derek Smith was followed by a 15-yard touchdown run by Haggerty. Magill’s extra point was good and Highland stretched their lead to 15-0.
Chad Carey picked off a Churchill pass before the end of the first half to help slow the opponent’s offence.
Haggerty continued the offensive pressure early in the second half, with runs of 11, 14 and 27-yards.
Churchill’s offence again appeared to start rolling late in the third quarter and Highland’s defence bent without breaking. But buried deep in their own territory and unable to pick up much ground from his own 1-yard line, Haggerty took a knee in the end zone and conceded two points to the Bulldogs.
Churchill picked up 15-yards on another big passing play in the final quarter, but Highland again stopped them forcing an incomplete pass on third down and taking the ball over on downs.
An 18-yard pass to Derek Smith was followed by a 12-yard carry by Deion Ratcliffe, a short gain by Haggarty and a 16-yard carry by Ratcliffe – putting Highland on Churchill’s 1- yard line with only two minutes left to play.
Highland was unable to punch the ball through for a third touchdown, and after a run attempt and incomplete pass Craig Magill put the ball through the uprights for an eight yard field goal and an 18-2 lead.
Jim Holmes of Highland recovered a Churchill fumble in the final minute and Hawks players dumped the water container over coach Samson’s head.
Samson credited Churchill’s defence for their goal line stands and strong play throughout the game.
“We would have liked to score more,” he said. “We scored enough.”
Samson takes pride in the fact his team gets all available players on the roster into the carrying, with mostly distinct players on defence, offence and special teams. He said the entire team contributed to its success.
But he specifically pointed to the team’s offensive line, often mocked by opponents for not being big enough, for an exceptional performance.
Several former Highland players, who fell just short during strong high school football careers, stepped forward to congratulate their former coach on the win.
“It’s for you guys,” Samson told them. “You made people want to play.”
It was Highland’s running game that carried the day, with a few key passing plays.
Haggarty led the way with 172 yards on 22 carries and both touchdowns. But Deion Ratcliff contributed strong blocking and five carries for 34 yards.
Derek Smith had two big catches for a total of 31-yards and A.J. Thompson snagged one pass for 21-yards.