VANCOUVER — There was a time earlier this season, coming off a loss to North Vancouver’s Handsworth Royals and sporting a 2-5 overall record after losing three straight games, that the Notre Dame Jugglers looked like no one’s idea of a Subway Bowl contender.
Yet so many veterans from within the B.C. high school football world were whispering a similar version of a certain theme Saturday night at B.C. Place Stadium, one which went like this: “What a job that coaching staff has done with those players” and “I think this is the best coaching job of Denis Kelly’s long career.”
Unranked Notre Dame, 5-6 overall and 2-5 in the AAA Western Conference, turned in one of its best-ever performances as an underdog team, beating the No. 1-ranked, previously-undefeated South Delta Sun Devils 28-15, leaning on a defence primed for takeaways and watching an offence built around the power-running game of Vincenzo Nardulli, stay the aggressors for the full four quarters.
“We had some tough games during the season and we play in an extremely-tough conference, so when you add that to all of the normal injuries you get, and a low number of bodies this year, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” said Kelly.
Clearly, the team’s 40-16 wildcard round win at Abbotsford last week, and Saturday’s stunner over a Sun Devils’ team coming off a shutout win two weeks ago against New Westminster, qualifies among the ‘ups’.
After a scoreless opening quarter, the Jugglers struck with a pair of touchdowns in the second to take a 14-0 halftime lead.
Luca Brown’s 15-yard run and Austin Longstaff’s able catch off a three-yard slant pass from quarterback Carmelo Renzullo were each converted by Brandon Torresan PATs as the Jugglers took advantage of their opportunities.
At the same time, how frustrating was the Sun Devils first half for its fans, and how dialled in were the Jugglers on defence?
Of its six first-half possessions, South Delta fumbled three times, and turned the ball over once on downs.
“The defensive game plan was outstanding,” said Kelly “Under (defensive coordinator) Jordan Liberman we came up with some great turnovers in the first half to solidify our situation.”
Nine minutes into the second half, Notre Dame struck again to take a 21-0 lead, this time with a two-yard Nardulli run set up by a long pass play from Renzullo to Matthew Battad.
The Sun Devils finally found the end zone on a five-yard run by back Damon Badenhorst, and when Badenhorst ran in the ensuing two-point convert, the self-fuelled challenge was clearly alive within South Delta: Trailing 21-8, they could still salvage their season with two touchdowns over the final 17-plus minutes of play.
Notre Dame returned the ball to the Sun Devils’ 40-yard line on the ensuing kick-off, and then on their first snap, Nardulli took it the rest of the way with a TD run that was more like a punch to the solar-plexus.
Although Badenhorst was able to score on a 12-yard touchdown strike from Hunter Norman, the able fill-in for injured senior star starter Ben McDonald, it was all too little, too late.
“Offensively, we saw on tape that against New West, they played everybody tight to the line,” said Kelly of studying the schemes of South Delta. “So we knew they were going to give us the wide receiver play, the slants, and the fades. So that is one thing we thought we could take advantage of and we did, because we had lots of room out there when they stacked the box on us.”
Of course there was a reason the box had to be stacked.
“It was because of Nardulli,” Kelly continued of the senior running back whom in first-ever full season as RB-1, turned in the fourth-best rushing numbers in B.C. AAA. “So the combination of Nardulli and the passes to Battad, Longstaff and (Denis) Moses were big. And our quarterback, Renzullo, he had a great game. He really delivered. It was his best game of the year.”
Next for the reinvented kids from East Van?
The Jugglers face Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers in the semifinals.
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