Panthers running back Samwel Uko dives for yardage during Saturday’s provincial final. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Abbotsford Panthers: Squib kick sorrow

Kick-off return turnovers cost Abbotsford provincial football title

The Windsor Dukes discovered the Abbotsford Panthers’ Achilles heel – squib kickoffs – during Saturday’s provincial final.

Windsor created turnovers on five different kickoffs during the B.C. high school football’s AA final at BC Place, which ultimately decided the game.

The Dukes defeated Abbotsford 44-29 to capture the title, but turnovers and offside penalties led to the demise of the Panthers’ title hopes.

“That was pretty much the story of the game,” said Panthers head coach Jay Fujimura after the game. “It’s [kickoff turnovers], a little bit of bad luck and also being young on the field on some of those returns. We can’t come back against a good team after all those turnovers.”

Panthers running back Samwel Uko, who Fujimura admitted was banged up from last week’s semifinal win over Vernon, opened the game’s scoring with a rushing touchdown late in the first, but then was forced to miss a series of plays due to an ankle injury. He returned, but was noticeably impacted by his nagging injury.

Despite the injury, Uko was recognized as the top back of the game by B.C. high school football representatives.

The Dukes answered with a 68-yard passing play on the next drive, but a Ryan Street interception then led to a Luke Szmutko touchdown, and the Panthers were up 15-8 early in the second. Dukes quarterback Ryan Baker, who earned the game’s most valuable player nod, tied the game late in the second.

And then the kick-off-return issues became more glaring for the Panthers.

Abbotsford turned the ball over on a kickoff for the second time following Baker’s major, and the Dukes scored again. Another kickoff and another turnover led to another Dukes touchdown to end the first half up 29-15.

Szmutko got the Panthers to within a touchdown in the third quarter, but then two more kickoff turnovers saw Windsor jump to a 44-22 lead. Karl van Einsiedel added a late score to make it a 44-29 final.

The Panthers even had a visit from 2016 Abbotsford Senior Secondary grad Chase Claypool, who was on the sidelines with the team the entire game.

Claypool and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish next play against Louisiana State University in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018. The wide receiver didn’t seem to bring the luck of the Irish with him to BC Place for the Panthers.

Fujimura added that his time of possession was another crucial factor in the Panthers’ loss.

“Our game plan was to limit the amount of time that Windsor had the ball and it looked like that would’ve been the way we could’ve beat them but we weren’t expecting to turn the ball over so many times at the kickoff,” Fujimura said. “If we had got a couple of stops they would have had a tough time stopping our offence – and they did. We scored almost every time we had the ball; we just didn’t have it enough.”

The Panthers also lost in the AA provincial final in 2015, and it has now been 33 years since the school has earned a provincial title.

Saturday’s provincial final was the only regular-season or playoff loss for the Panthers all year long. Fujimura said he’s proud of his team’s play in 2017.

“We played hard and had opportunities,” he said. “All we want is a chance to win and we had every opportunity to win but at the end of the day it just didn’t happen for us.”

The AAA final game saw the New Westminster Hyacks defeat the Terry Fox Ravens 15-14 after a thrilling last-second touchdown and two-point conversion.

Other winners at the event on Saturday were: the Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers (Junior Varsity AAA), the Vernon Panthers (JV AA) and the Notre Dame Jugglers (Grade 8).

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