On a night that had enough drama to make an HBO executive blush, the Westshore Rebels overcame a late fourth quarter deficit to topple the Vancouver Island Raiders by a 34-29 score and clinch a berth in the B.C. Football Conference championship game.
The Rebels will play host Oct. 29 to the Okanagan Sun, who downed the Langley Rebels 26-23 on Sunday in Kelowna.
On Saturday with 2:30 to play in the final quarter, the Rebels’ chances looked bleak against the Raiders.
Having just taken a 28-26 lead, the visitors kicked off short, recovered the loose football and had a chance to put an early end to Westshore’s championship hopes.
That’s when a formidable Rebels’ defence flexed its muscles for the final time, holding the Raiders to a field goal attempt and giving the offence a chance.
“They were marching the field well. They were doing what (Vancouver Island) does and they were pounding the rock hard…we knew that we had to really step up…and force that field goal,” said defensive lineman Kent Hicks.
The field goal missed, and the Rebels offence took over with under two minutes to play and a long field ahead of them.
Quarterback Ashton Mackinnon, who struggled to move the ball down the field for much of the evening, performed masterfully in the two-minute drill while finding open receivers in Nathaniel Pinto and Kain Melchior.
“As with all two minute drills you get the ball to your playmakers and you get out of bounds,” said head coach JC Boice.
“The way (Mackinnon) responded down that stretch was just fantastic.”
With under 25 seconds to play, Jamel Lyles hit pay dirt from two yards out to give the Rebels a thrilling win.
Lyles credited the Raiders with playing the Rebels tough, but says he remained confident in the game’s outcome all the way through.
“We never have doubt. We set our standards high at the beginning of the season and we knew what we had to do. Even when our backs are against the wall…we come out on top,” Lyles said.
The Rebels routinely relied on a strong second half throughout the season, but on this night their opponents hung with them even as they improved after a sluggish first half.
Lyles electrified the home crowd with a touchdown on the opening kick return, but Westshore failed to generate much offence for the rest of the opening 30 minutes.
The two teams went into the break knotted in a 12-12 tie.
It was the visitors who came out stronger in the third quarter, putting a pair of field goals on the board to jump out to an 18-12 lead.
The Rebels went back to their bread and butter on their next possession, running Lyles and Trey Campbell down the field before Mackinnon finished the drive off with a short TD run.
After a Raiders FG and another Mackinnon goal line plunge, the Rebels had a five point lead.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Raiders got a touchdown from Nathan Berg to put them back in front and set up the late game heroics by the Rebels.
The Cullen Cup will take place at Westhills Stadium on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. It will be the Rebels’ first appearance in the B.C. championship game since 2004.