In the short history of the Pemberton Grizzlies, the winning play from the team’s home field debut can already go down as “The Catch.”
Dustin Lander caught a 35-yard touchdown pass on the goal line, hauling in a ball that was deflected up in the air late in the fourth quarter Saturday (Aug. 31) to give the Grizzlies a 20-14 win over the visiting Howe Sound Secondary Sounders at Pemberton Meadows Field.
“Dustin wasn’t the intended receiver,” quarterback Eldon Finck said with a grin shortly after the final whistle.
When the pass, which was headed for receiver Wesley Finck in double coverage, popped up in the air, Lander was able to reel it in and walk into the end zone to give the Grizzlies their only lead of the day. Zac Moxley then snagged an interception on the Sounders’ ensuing drive to seal the victory.
“It was sheer luck,” Lander said of the winning score. “I just grabbed it, tucked it and ran it right in.”
Lander had all three Pemberton touchdowns in Saturday’s win, taking an interception to the end zone on the first play of the second quarter to make it a 6-6 game. The Sounders responded with a 65-yard run for a touchdown on the next play from scrimmage and took a 14-6 lead into the half.
But a Pemberton offence that was stifled through the first two quarters came to life in the second half, with Lander scoring on a 55-yard catch-and-run play early in the third quarter to pull the Grizzlies within two points.
Late in the fourth quarter, Pemberton converted on a crucial 4th-and-9 near midfield when Eldon Finck found Kex Nelson for a first down, keeping the drive alive for Lander’s late-game heroics. Wesley Finck caught a two-point convert after the go-ahead touchdown to round out the scoring.
Although the Sounders ended the game with 255 yards of total offence to Pemberton’s 190, the Grizzlies calmly controlled the second half while holding their visitors off the scoreboard in the final two quarters.
“The thing that impressed me the most was that … the guys came out in the second half with their foot on the pedal and they never let up, on both sides of the ball,” said head coach John Burleson, whose team recorded five sacks while allowing just one. “I really felt like our line, offensively and defensively, applied pressure throughout most of the game.”
The Grizzlies, who played an entire season of road games during their debut 2012 season, had their first chance to play at home Saturday and Lander said it was a special experience.
“It was our inaugural home game and it was just the best feeling ever,” he said.
Burleson said there was a steep learning curve for his players last season, when they travelled to play U.S. teams for most of the fall. Between last year’s schedule and another preseason camp down in Oregon this summer, the Grizzlies have improved at a tremendous pace and Burleson was pleased his charges got a chance to finally put their growth on display for a home crowd.
“Playing in front of your home fans is such an important thing for any team — that’s why they call it a home field advantage,” said Burleson. “Every one of us were just amazed and so appreciative of all the people who came out to the game. They were loud, they were noisy, they were supportive and they stayed right to the end. The way the game ended, I think everybody left on a good note. We hope they keep coming out to support us, because these kids have worked really hard.”
Eldon Finck said the team would dedicate the victory to former Grizzlies coach Ron Fogarty, who passed away in June.
“He loved the game and he’d be so proud of us right now,” said the Pemberton quarterback. “He was with us in our hearts.”
The Grizzlies are back in action at home Sunday (Sept. 8) for a 1 p.m. kickoff with the South Kamloops Titans. The Pemberton team will also travel to Alaska later this month to take on the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears, a program that has captured two state championships in the past.