Ottawa, ON – With just over six minutes to go in the fourth quarter of the Ottawa Gee-Gees’ and the Windsor Lancers’ Yates Cup quarterfinal matchup, Windsor quarterback Danny Skelton took the snap on first and ten from the Ottawa 45 and handed off to running back Christopher John.
John ran straight through the centre of the Ottawa defence but got stopped and dropped, allowing the ball to pop out to Emmanuel Aboagye-Gyan, who took it 60 yards for a fumble recovery touchdown.
That made it 38-34 for the Gee-Gees, punctuated a 15-0 run over the previous seven minutes and, in a way, showed a little of what this Gee-Gees season has been building toward.
When Ben Maracle tossed a pick-six to Liam Hoskins seven minutes prior to make the score 34-23 for the Lancers 90 seconds into the fourth quarter, that very quickly could have been it. The Gees-Gees had been held scoreless, less a Windsor safety in the second half, and could have easily folded and let Windsor go back home with a stunning upset win.
When the clock hit double zeros, though, a 43-40 win for Ottawa, punctuated with Aboagye-Gyan’s touchdown in the middle, showed that this Gee-Gees might genuinely have the fight in them to get somewhere special this season.
The Gee-Gees and Lancers took the field on Saturday in both familiar and also unfamiliar ground for Ottawa. Construction on buildings around the stadium forced Ottawa to make a temporary home at TD Place for the 2021 and 2022 seasons, but they still practiced at their regular home stadium of Gee-Gees Field.
With the REDBLACKS at TD Place taking on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats though and the Canadian Premier League Final on Oct. 30, that meant the Gee-Gees headed back home to Lees campus for the first time since Nov. 2019.
“It was a little different. I can’t deny that,” Ottawa head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said. “I don’t know if it was positive or negative [chuckles], but it was a little different.”
If the difference negatively impacted Ottawa, it wasn’t evident early as the Gee-Gees opened the afternoon in clear control.
JP Cimankinda, fresh off of finishing fourth in the OUA with eight rushing touchdowns, punched in his first of the afternoon with just under four minutes to go in the first. Following that, Campbell Fair knocked his first field goal attempt of the day through the uprights (and entirely out of the stadium) to make it 10-0 Ottawa after the first.
The Lancers responded in the second quarter, though. Veteran running back Christopher John pounded in his first rushing touchdown of the afternoon three minutes into the second before Windsor kicker Brady Lidster put one through the uprights to make it 10-10.
That was the theme for much of the first half. The Gee-Gees, while still confident, saw the Lancers match every punch they threw with one of their own. Another Campbell Fair field goal, followed by Ben Maracle finding Nicholas Gendron for a 12-yard touchdown pass, making it 19-10 and a safety made it 21-10.
Right before the half, though, Joey Zorn, the freshman who finished fourth in the OUA with 100 rushing yards per game for Windsor, pounded in his first touchdown of the day to make it 21-17, where it stayed until halftime.
“I was really proud of the guys; they battled the entire time being in the playoffs for the first time in eight years; it’s no easy feat,” Windsor head coach Jean-Paul Crcelli said.
The Lancers last made the Yates Cup playoffs in 2014, but coming out of the break at halftime, they could easily have been mistaken for the OUA veterans.
An early Brady Lidster field goal made it 21-20 before Danny Skelton found Daniel Trasher for a 13-yard pass to make it 27-21 for Windsor. Another safety gave Ottawa two more points, but Windsor entered the fourth quarter of their first playoff game in eight seasons up 27-23.
Yet, even being down, the Gee-Gees were still confident in their ability to come back.
“We’ve been through this before, we had a lot of close games this year, and the guys know that if they just hang in and keep playing, eventually they’ll have a chance to win the game,” Bellefeuille said.
Even when Liam Hoskins brought Ben Maracle’s first interception of the afternoon 34 yards to the endzone to make it 34-23 with 13:30 to play, that confidence never wavered.
“I just told the team we still have one quarter to play; the game’s not over; we’ve been in worse positions, we’ve been in better positions. I just told them to keep their head up,” JP Cimankinda said.
Cimankinda got it started with his second rushing touchdown of the afternoon as he took it 16-yards home (capped off with a two-point conversion catch from Willy-Pierre Dimbongi) to make it 34-31 for Windsor.
The turning point, though, was the fumble recovery.
“At that point, we needed a spark; we needed something to happen. We were down, the defence was getting scored on a little bit, and we needed something,” Aboagye-Gyan said.
That 60-yard recovery touchdown left the young Lancers, perhaps riding high on visions of the Yates Cup semifinal, stunned.
“The momentum shifted when they got that fumble recovery for a touchdown, and you know momentum is a big thing in this game,” Joey Zorn said.
A third safety tacked on two more for Ottawa before Campbell Fair made it 43-34 with 2:38 to go. Even with momentum going the other way, though, with their season in the balance, the Lancers still didn’t stop.
With the clock under one minute, Danny Skelton marched the Lancers down the field, where Christopher John punched in his second touchdown to make it 43-40.
“To have a lead early in the fourth and to see it disappear, you could just hang your head, and that’s it, and that’s probably what the team was like in the past,” Circelli said. “To see them continue to rally and have belief that’s a big step.”
A two-point conversion attempt from Skelton missed, and the subsequent onside kick from Windsor was recovered by Ottawa, meaning that was all from Gee-Gees Field.
Despite not ending the year where they would have wanted to, the Lancers deserve to be proud as a program. A team that in 2019 finished with one win, doubled it to two in 2021, and then doubled it again to four in 2022, the Lancers showed that for the first time in a few years, there is serious reason for optimism in Windsor.
“I think overall people would look at this season for Windsor and go, wow, Windsor has come a long way,” Zorn said. “But for us and everyone on the team, we expect a lot more from ourselves, and I think we’re really excited just to build off this.”
For the Gee-Gees, a date with Queen’s at Richardson Stadium is on the menu in the Yates Cup semifinal. An opening night loss to the Gaels filled with mistakes cost the Gee-Gees home-field advantage for this matchup.
If Saturday proved anything, though, this Gee-Gees team might just have the grit needed to carry themselves to the Yates Cup Championship.