University of British Columbia Thunderbirds' Will Maxwell, foreground reacts as the University of Calgary Dinos' celebrate their victory following the USports Hardy Cup football game in Calgary, Saturday. Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS
As the ball sailed off the foot of Niko DiFonte, every person in attendance held their collective breath, watching the ball arc up and … just over.
That’s when McMahon Stadium erupted.
“Holy crap,” was the first thing that went through DiFonte’s mind.
The second-year kicker from Winnipeg hit a mammoth 59-yard field goal, with no time left on the clock, to give the University of Calgary Dinos an absolutely thrilling 44-43 victory over the UBC Thunderbirds in Saturday’s 81st Hardy Cup championship, the U Sports’ Canada West Conference title game.
The Dinos will celebrate for one evening then prepare for the nemesis Laval Rouge et Or, the team they will host in next weekend’s Mitchell Bowl. Laval defeated the Montreal Carabins 25-22 in the Quebec conference final.
University of Calgary Dinos kicker Niko DiFonte, centre, celebrates their victory over the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds following the USports Hardy Cup football game in Calgary, Saturday. Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS
“I knew that was the limit of his range,” Dinos head coach Wayne Harris Jr. said of his kicker. “I knew if he could connect well, he had a shot. He’s such a mentally tough kid. He’s made some big kicks for us in so many games, he has such a strong leg … well done by him, and good job by the offence to get it to where we had a shot.”
DiFonte’s kick, from a distance he’d never hit before, was a U Sports record.
For the Thunderbirds, who were feeling pretty good when they scored a touchdown with 16 seconds left to take a 43-41 lead, it was gutting.
“I just wanted to throw up when I saw that happen,” said UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor with a sigh.
“It killed me. It’s going to take a while to get over that one.”
“You want to know something? Honest to God, when Wayne wasn’t going to kick it, I thought he should try for it because I’ve seen that kid kick and I thought, s–t, he has a chance,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill. “He had to hit it right, and he had to hit it low, and he did it.
“I thought the biggest play of that last series was that first pass. I thought we were too soft on it.”
That final sequence was as exciting as it was quick. With the ball at their own 35-yard line, quarterback Adam Sinagra found Tyler Ledwos at the Calgary 53, and their subsequent play didn’t go quite as far as the Dinos had hoped, only to the UBC 52.
“We knew they played soft so get a deep drop out and hopefully 10-15 more yards,” said Sinagra, who threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
“We only got eight, but Niko pulled through. Utter disbelief. That’s my roommate. I thought I didn’t give him enough distance. Just to see the ball go through the uprights … I don’t even know where my helmet is right now.”
Receiver Hunter Karl scored a pair of majors for Calgary while Richard Sindani had one. O’Connor, who struck repeatedly with the long bomb and did everything he could to help UBC’s cause, had TD passes of 54, 51, 40, 24 and six yards.
University of British Columbia Thunderbirds’ Ben Cummings, right, tries to escape from University of Calgary Dinos’ Brayden Laurie during first half Hardy Cup football action in Calgary, Saturday. Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Another most noteworthy performance was had by Calgary running back Robert Stewart, who thrashed his way to 198 yards and was virtually unstoppable.
“I attribute a lot of it to the (offensive) linemen,” said Stewart. “They were really doing well up there. (The Thunderbirds are) a great team — it was a slugfest. They were scoring, we were scoring … It was a great team win overall.”
Calgary curtailed UBC drives through turnovers — one came on a change of possession on downs at the UBC 17 early in the second, and the other came on a bizarre interception by Matthew Lucyshyn which bounced off another leg into his arms.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” O’Connor said. “We thought we were going to win that game. It wasn’t the result we wanted. I’m really proud of my guys — they fought hard, and we stuck with it to the very end. It’s a great football game, but it’s a tough one.”