By Dan Plouffe
Amid whiteout conditions at times, the only blue visible on Saturday at TAAG Park came not from the sky, but instead from the Cumberland Panthers streaking to the end zone en route to the final dominant victory of their masterful season.
The U12 Panthers plowed over the Vaughan Rebels 54-12 during Football Ontario’s 2022 Fall Cup Provincial Championship Weekend on the snow-covered Carleton University field – “a true Canadian final,” as Cumberland head coach Ryan Gaucher called it.
“I am thrilled that our team was able to finish the season off strong with a provincial title,” Gaucher said in an email interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages. “We wanted this from day 1 and set ourselves these goals at the very beginning of the season. Through hard work and determination, we were able to achieve these goals and create memories that will last a lifetime.”
The Rebels were the champions of the Southern Ontario-based Ontario Fall Football League, while the Panthers went undefeated in 10 games to claim the National Capital Amateur Football Association crown. The Fall Cup is a new competition; last year was the first time the OFFL and NCAFA champions faced off.
“It was a great experience to be able to play a top tiered team from within the province. NCAFA and Football Ontario have done a phenomenal job putting these events together to showcase the province’s top talent,” indicated Gaucher, whose team played the provincial final the day before the Grey Cup and a week before the Vanier Cup.
“It will be fun to see how Football Ontario expands on this in the coming years to potentially having a national tournament one day to crown the best in Canada,” he adds. “Who knows? The sky is the limit.”
The same seems to be true of the young Cumberland boys who crushed their competition every step of the way this year. The Nepean Eagles’ 28-6 defeat was as close as anyone would come to challenging the Panthers in the regular season, where they outscored their opponents by a combined 434-50 mark.
The Eagles scored a season-high 14 points against the Panthers in the NCAFA championship game, but that was not close to the 54 Cumberland put up on Nov. 5 at Nepean Sportsplex.
The final tally was similar in the provincial final. Vaughan found a little life with a long third-quarter touchdown to bring the score to 32-12, but Cumberland majors by Antoni Clement and quarterback Alexandre Anderson on back-to-back possessions snuffed out any chance of a comeback.
Gaucher credited his players for adapting well to the slippery footing and cold ball in the championship game, though the team’s trademark perseverance was ingrained well before then.
At Tuesday practice, the group would start and finish with fun activities. First was the relay race to kickoff with high energy. At the end came the awards: a big hammer and a golden ball to the defensive and offensive players who made impact plays, and (Ottawa Redblacks-style) cookies to highlight other big “turning-point” plays by the offence and defence.
In between came the heavy lifting, moulded around three mottos: “No one will work harder than us”, “We control two things: our attitude and our effort”, and “Hard work pays off”.
“That mixed with a solid group of parents, coaches, managers and athletes that were 100% committed is what lead us to success,” highlighted Gaucher, while noting that lessons learned in football also teach important life skills. “We set ourselves a goal at the beginning of the season to work towards and that was to win the NCAFA A-Cup. The provincial title was the cherry on top.”
The U12 Panthers were one of three Cumberland teams to claim NCAFA ‘A’ Cup championships this season. The U16 Panthers were almost as dominant in their own undefeated season, blasting opponents by a combined 390-44 before 35-21 and 19-7 playoff victories over Bell and Kanata.
The U14 Panthers closed their 6-2 regular season with a 21-12 loss to Kanata but then took down the Knights 55-28 in their playoff semi-final rematch before beating Nepean 21-15 in the league final.
“Leadership always starts at the top of any organization or club. Our executive team and namely our president Mike Schmidt has been extremely supportive,” noted Gaucher. “Mike, a close friend of mine, delivers a tremendous energy and drive to his leaders and athletes, which we all feed off of.
“One of his many but most famous quotes is: ‘Be the best version of yourself in everything you do.’ I am very proud to be a Panther and I look forward to the bright future of this organization under this leadership team.”
The Kanata Knights claimed the other NCAFA ‘A’ Cup titles this season at the youngest (U10) and oldest (U19) age groups. The U16 and U19 NCAFA champions concluded their seasons with inter-provincial bowl contests in Montreal.
The Provincial Championship Weekend featured eight games in total – U10 jamboree games and U12 and U14 Tier 1 and Tier 2 finals.
The Bell Warriors were the other local Ontario Fall Cup winners, taking the U12 Tier 2 title with a 6-0 victory over Oakville.
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