If one can achieve half a goal, then the Lo-Ellen Park Knights senior boys football team certainly deserve credit for that.
While they were unable to end the NOSSA curse, the three-time city champions contested one of the better northern Ontario finals witnessed in some time, beaten 23-6 by the St Mary’s Knights in Sault Ste Marie on last Saturday.
The contest might have been even closer if not for a key turning late in the first half.
Trailing 8-0, the SDSSAA reps were knocking on the door, inside the St Mary’s five yard line when a Jaiden Trudeau 79-yard interception return deep into Lo-Ellen territory allowed the homeside to expand their lead to 9-0 at the half.
The momentum carried into the second half as Jack MacPherson bulldozed into the end zone for the second time, making the score 16-0 before Steven Sola connected with Carter Sagle on a 59 yard pass and run to set up a short TD by the Sudbury quarterback (Sola).
That, however, was as close as the game would get as the Knights from the Lock City punched their ticket to another trip to OFSAA.
Still, it would be hard to argue against the fact that extended far beyond a much better end result than in 2022 - Lo-Ellen dropped a 49-22 decision to the Korah Colts last year, but were trailing 49-0 at the half - that the improved competitiveness in the Knights was evident all over the field this fall.
"Looking back at my grade 10 year, I can totally see a major improvement in my abilities and my knowledge of the game," noted 17 year-old linebacker Mike McKernan, just two days before the NOSSA final.
"The Jr Spartans program helped with that too. Last year, I felt I had a lot of ability but I didn't get much playing time because we had so many returning grade thirteens. Coming into this year, I was really confident that I could make a big impact on our roster."
It would take some digging, but one would have to think that the 23 points scored by St Mary's represent the lowest total in a head to head matchup with a SDSSAA banner winning team in likely 25 years or more.
"There is so much depth on our defense," said McKernan. "Our defense this year really feeds off each other. When a big play happens, we all get hyped. I think we really have a chance this year to hold this team (St Mary's) to a good amount of points and let our offense do their thing."
Truth be told, the Knights' defense was definitely in that ballpark.
But where the Lo-Ellen offense had lit it up against every Sudbury opponent they faced, their namesakes from the Sault did a great job of limiting the big play explosiveness of Steven Sola and company - despite the fact that the young signal-called is clearly the best that he has been since taking over the starting role while in grade ten three years ago.
"Now that I've matured, I have really learned how to stretch the field vertically," said Sola. "The past few years, I really did not have the sarm strength or arm talent to threaten with the deep ball, threaten with the boundaries."
"Now that I can throw the ball to the sidelines, throw it 50 yards to the boundaries, I have limited my scrambling, throwing on about 70% of our plays."
The growth of his game did not go unnoticed, even to the coach who excelled at limiting his success.
"Their quarterback is fantastic," noted St Mary's head coach Jim Monico in an interview that appeared in Soo Today. "He was a headache for us all game. They're a good team."
And for as much as Sola lacked no confidence in his team's ability to put up points in the final, he was also keenly aware of the incredible legacy that SSM-based high-school teams have enjoyed in NOSSA playdowns.
"Whichever has the ball longer will win this game," he predicted on Thursday night, less than 48 hours before kickoff. "When we control the possession in the game, we win. In my opinion, that's the key factor."
"It's all about marching down that field, controlling the pace of the game. The scary thing about these guys (St Mary's) is the combination of their run game and their explosive ability."