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Varsity Football
Cumberland Panthers win provincial JV crown in dramatic fashion
By Fred Sherwin
Orléans Online

Cumberland Panthers receiver Xavier Gervais hauls in the championship winning touchdown against the Essex Ravens on Sunday. Fred Sherwin/Photo

In a championshp finish for the ages, the Cumberland Panthers are the inaugural junior varsity champions of the fledgling Ontario Provincial Football League after defeating the Essex Ravens in dramtic fashion on Sunday.

Trailing 24-20 with 42 seconds left in the game, Cumberland quarterback Ryan Licandro led his team down the field on a championship winning drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to Xavier Gervais with 4.6 seconds left on the clock.

The Panthers seemed all but out of the game four minutes earlier when they decided to go for a touchdown trailing by four points rather than kick a field goal. Licandaro's pass went in and out of the hands of Kyle Markell, negating a sure touchdown and leaving the Cairine Wilson Secondary School student devastated on the sideline.

The winning drive was set up by a magnificent tackle in the backfield by Chris Bitchotka that took the Ravens out of potential field goal range, forcing them to punt the ball instead.with 1:07 left on the clock.

After the Panthers got the ball back on their own 20-yard line, Licandro made a 39-yard toss to a Wesley Bailey who made a nearly impossible catch, leaping up between two Essex defenders to grab the pigskin on the Ravens' 51-yard line with 52.1 seconds left.

Consecutive passes to Gervais and Jonathan Aoude would move the ball down to the 25-yard line. After an incomplete pass, Licandro found Kevin Victome over the middle on third and five to give the Panthers another first down on the Ravens' 19-yard line with 11.8 seconds left.

On the touchdown winning throw, Licandro cooly stepped up into the pocket and tossed the ball over two Essex defenders and into the hands of Xavier Gervais, who was running a crossing pattern at the back of the end zone.

Cumberland then added a two-point convert on a pass from Licandro to Aoude, which sealed the win for the Panthers.

After the game an emotional Gervais described the game winning pass.

"They weren't expecting it," Gervais sais after being mobbed by his teammates. "They weren't expecting the ball to come to me. I just got open and Ryan threw a perfect pass."

The OPFL championship is the St. Matthew High School student's second major provincial win in less than a year. He guided the Tigers to an Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association bowl game win last November.

He also had to deal with a sever ankle sprain suffered prior to their Week 7 match up against the Ottawa Sooners which kept him from fulfilling his kicking duties, but not from helping out his team in other ways as a back-up quarterback and part-time receiver.

"I never would have thought (it would come down to me). Never would have thought it. I can't even talk right now.It's crazy," said Gervais. "we have the best coaches in the league and the best team in the league."

The Cumberland Panthers pose with the OPFL Junior Varsity championship banner and trophy after upsetting the Essex Ravens on a last second touchdiwn at Richardson Stadium in Kingston on Sunday. Fred Sherwin/Photo

The Panthers' championship run started after the team had gotten off to a dismal 1-3 start to the season. One of the major reasons for the slow start was personnel. The team had lost several key players from years past including quarterback Christian Veilleux and running back Fabrice Mukendi who had led the Panthers to the Ontario Varsity Football League bantam semi-final last summer and the OVFL final the year before.

New players had to step up as starters including Licandro, Gervais, running back Marvin Simba and Scott Fulton, who made the switch from middle linebacker to full-back. The defense also had a lot of new faces. But over time the players caught up to the coaching, resulting in a seven game winning streak that culminated with Sunday's victory in the championship.

Rarely lost for words, Panthers' head coach Jeff Koradi had to compose himself before trying to express what it felt like to finally win a provincial title.

"Everybody counted us out. We had guys quit on us, but the coaches and the players never stopped believing in themselves and that we could turn things around and make it to the championship, and now here we are OPFL champions. I couldn't be more proud of my players or the coaches. It's an amazing feeling," said Koradi.

The game itself, was a take of two halves. The underdog Panthers flew out of the gates, jumping out to a 17-0 first quarter lead on a pair of touchdown passes from Licandro to Kevin Victome and a 20-yard field goal by Gervais.

The Ravens only points in the first half came on a safety given up by the Panthers in the second quarter which made the score 17-2 at halftime.

After the break the Ravens opened the third quarter with their first touchdown drive of the game. A missed two-point convert, however, would leave them trailing 17-8. When the Panthers failed to pick up a first down on their next possession, the Ravens scored another touchdown and added the extra point to narrow the deficit to 17-15.

The Panthers had an excellent chance to extend their lead to nine ppoints late in the third quarter when a pair of pass interference penalties against the Ravens gave them a first down on the one yard line. Unfortunately, a botched snap on second down would force them to settle for a 10-yard field goal and a five-point lead.

The five-point lead was whittled down to three points when the Panthers were forced to give up another safety at the beginning of the fourth quarter. After Essex tookoever possession of the ball on their own 35-yard line, they marched down the field for the go-ahead touchdown and their first lead of the game with 7:28 left to go.

Essex would get the ball back with 6:35 left on the clock, but they were stopped dead in their tracks when Conor MacDonald picked off his third pass of the day to set up the failed pass attempt from Licandro to Markell.

The late game dramatics by the Panther offence overshadowed a tremendous game by the defence which stymied the top offensive team in the OPFL time and again led by MacDonald; Victome; Bitchoka; Dominik Ostrowski, who caused the Ravens' offensive line fits all game; and linebacker Justice Koradi.

At the end of the contest, Victome was named as the top offensive player of the game and Licandro was named as the league's MVP.

(Posted 10:30 a.m., Aug. 7)

 

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