In what has to be considered an instant classic, the Laurier Golden Hawks’ football season came to a dramatic end Saturday, when they fell to the number four nationally ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees, 32-31, in their OUA semi-final match-up.
The 4-4 Golden Hawks traveled to Ottawa as heavy underdogs Saturday to face the 7-1 Gee-Gees but managed to keep the OUA regular season champion Gee-Gees in check throughout the game, losing the nail-biter on a late field goal.
Laurier came out firing from the get-go, and quarterback Shane Kelly marched the Hawks down-field by completing pass after pass down the middle of the field, on the way to a 30-yard touchdown completion to Dillon Heap from backup quarterback Evan Pawliuk to give Laurier the lead.
Ottawa’s dangerous aerial attack, led by MVP-favourite, Brad Sinopli, put the Gee-Gees right back in the game on the next drive. Following a questionable penalty against the Hawks that would have resulted in a punt, Sinopli gunned a 52-yard pass to Alex Fortier-Labonte, tying up the game.
On the next drive, Sinopli found the end zone again, with an 11-yarder to Cyril Adjeity, to give Ottawa the lead at the end of the first quarter.
Laurier was able to respond early in the second quarter; however, as Kelly found Jeff Emberley in the end zone from nine yards out to even the score again.
Laurier’s next possession saw yet another major through the air, as Kelly hit Anton Bennett out of the backfield for a 14-yard touchdown, regaining the lead for the Golden Hawks.
Giancarlo Rapanaro, a fifth-year linebacker who played kicker for the day, made an amazing play, recovering his own punt deep in Ottawa territory, which led to a 36-yard field-goal converted by him, to increase the Laurier lead to 10.
After conceding a safety late in the half, the Golden Hawks headed into halftime with a surprising 24-16 advantage.
As the second half got under way, Pawliuk took over the quarterback position after a concussion in the first half sidelined Kelly. He looked determined if not a bit shaky at being given the reigns to the team, after losing the starting position following a poor performance in Ottawa during the regular season.
After the teams traded turnovers on downs, Sinopli was able to get the Gee-Gees passing game back on track, launching a 53-yard touchdown past Ezra Millington to close the Hawks’ lead to just a point.
Pawliuk settled down and answered right back for the Golden Hawks, leading the offense downfield and capping the drive off with a three-yard scamper on an option play, to extend the lead back to 31-23 going into the fourth quarter.
Ottawa was able to again cut into the lead, however, with Franck Ngandui rushing into the Hawks end zone from the one. Following a failed two-point conversion, Laurier’s lead was cut to 31-29.
In what was arguably the turning point for the Gee-Gees, Ottawa’s defence was able to stuff Laurier’s rushing attack on both second and third down, when the Hawks had just inches to make, forcing a turnover on downs and getting the ball on Laurier’s side of half.
Both defences played strong in the minutes preceding, until yet another questionable call against Laurier’s defence moved Ottawa into field goal range, allowing Matt Falvo to convert a 36-yarder and move into the lead, 32-31.
The final two minutes of the game was some of the best football that the fans at Frank Clair Stadium will ever see. Laurier intercepted an arrant Sinopli pass to set up what looked like the final drive. But after Pawliuk threw an incomplete pass on third down, the Hawks defence managed to force a two-and-out, giving Pawliuk and the offense the ball back with under 40 seconds on the clock.
Despite good field position following the punt return, BJ Wilan was able to sack Pawliuk for the fourth time, causing a big loss on second down and knocking the Hawks out of field goal range.
On third down, Pawliuk could not hook up with Emberley, leading to the end of the Golden Hawks season, as they fell 32-31.
Despite being written off by many before the game, Laurier held their own throughout the contest and have to be left wondering “what if?”
What if the two questionable calls against the Laurier defence had not been made? Both of those calls led to points for Ottawa. What if Kelly, who is known for being more of a deep-threat passer than Pawliuk, didn’t get injured and was available for Laurier’s last-minute drives?
What if conceding the safety in the second half, Laurier had forced Ottawa to earn those two points?
Unfortunately, these questions will go unanswered and all that will matter for the Golden Hawks is the final mark in the loss column.
Ottawa will now go on to host Western in the 103rd Yates Cup in the game that will crown the OUA champion.