THUNDER BAY — Featuring a rematch of the two finalists, this year's senior high school football campaign started the same way last season's ended.
Only this time, bragging rights remain up for grabs.
The defending champion St. Patrick Fighting Saints erased a two-touchdown second half deficit, powered by a pair of touchdown passes by quarterback Ciaran O'Neill, to avoid defeat with a 14-14 home field draw against the St. Ignatius Falcons.
"Last year, we did lose a lot of our very good players and I think a lot of teams are underestimating us because we lost so many good players," said O'Neill, who took over as the signal caller from the graduated Iene Auger. "This just shows we have a new group of kids coming up and we might be able to go again."
Falcons head coach Jason Moore said his team also features a number of new players coming into bigger roles this season.
"We knew this was going to be a challenge, but for us it's all about the first point of contact. Get past the jitters and learn from everything out of this game," Moore said.
The Falcons, seeking revenge after being denied their sixth city title in a decade last year, were the better side in the first half.
After a scoreless opening quarter, St. Ignatius got on the board early in the second when Lucas Dupuis plunged across the goal line on a quarterback sneak for the 6-0 edge after a missed point after attempt.
The Falcons appeared to seize momentum even further shortly after when Nolan Poirier intercepted a pass and took it to the end zone, but had the touchdown called back on a penalty for an illegal block during the return.
St. Ignatius did put their second touchdown on the board in the final minute before the half, when Dupuis connected with receiver Gunnar White for the score. A rouge point on the ensuing kickoff sent the visitors to the halftime break with a 14-point lead.
"We went downstairs, there were a lot of heads hanging low," O'Neill said. "Just one after another, people brought up that there's still another half of football and that we can bring it back."
With the Fighting Saints struggling to move the ball downfield, it was the special teams unit that changed the game. A blocked punt by St. Patrick defenders gave their offence a short field, capped by a red zone touchdown throw from O'Neill that found receiver Nicolas Lento in the end zone.
"Usually there's one play that changes the tide — you get emotions, you get leverage and so forth going forward," Moore said. "For us, the second half, we couldn't run inside. We have a lot of cleanup on our line to make it work."
Still trailing by a touchdown in the fourth, O'Neill connected with Tom Hardie on an 84-yard catch-and-run, as Hardie sprinted away from a defender down the sideline in front of his team to pull level.
"I saw my buddy pretty open. I was on the roll and had a guy on my butt, but I made a really good throw. He made a really good catch," O'Neill said. "It just brought us back. It brought all of the motivation."
The Fighting Saints put themselves in position to come away with the win, as their running attack marched down the field in the dying minutes, but a Lento field goal attempt came up well short.
"The second half — we came back, played good. The victory was there, but sloppy play, penalties, people not being positioned, and we settled for the tie," St. Patrick head coach Mike Marcon said. "Better than a loss, but still not acceptable. We definitely wanted to win this game."
Notes: Former Saints standout Nigel Romick, who went on to play collegiately for the Saint Mary's Huskies before embarking on his ongoing Canadian Football League career with the Ottawa Redblacks, had his No. 88 jersey retired by St. Patrick during a halftime ceremony...The Westgate Tigers and Hammarskjold Vikings were set to battle in the late game at Fort William Stadium.