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OPFL Football
Bantam Varsity Panthers advance to OPFL championship
By Fred Sherwin
Orléans Online

Cumberland Panthers running back Fabrice Mukendi finished the season with two more touchdowns on the weekend, giving him 15 for the year and over 1,250 yards. PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD GOULET

The Junior Varsity Cumberland Panthers bid to repeat as Ontario Provincial Football League champions ended in disappointment on Saturday to a 22-16 loss they suffered at the hands of the Durham Dolphins in the East Conference championship game.

The Panthers were hoping to build on the momentum they gained coming out of their 25-18 upset win over the Ottawa Jr. Senators in the East Conference semi-final last weekend, but instead they suffered a hangover that saw them fail to pick up a single first down in the first half against Durham.

“We just weren’t ready to play at the same level as them. In the end they made the plays and we didn’t, it as simple as that,” said Panthers head coach Jeff Koradi.

“Beating the Sooners was a major accomplisment for us because of the rivalry, but the intensity we showed in that game just wasn’t there against Durham.”

It was the second time the two teams had played each other in two weeks. The Dolphins beat the Panthers 25-22 on June 30, in what was the regular season finale for both teams. Koradi was hoping the result would be different on Saturday, but the Dolphins had other plans.

One of the lone bright spots for the Panthers was the running of Fabrice Mukendi who scored both of their majors.

“He’s an absolute beast. He was still running his heart out in the final minute when the result was already a foregone conclusion,” said Koradi.

The two touchdowns gave Mukendi 15 for the season in just eight games. He missed two games due to an injury. Mukendi also ran for another 100-plus yards, bringing his season total to over 1,250 yards.

The 16-year-old was hoping to win a championship after sitting out last season.

“It’s too bad he never got a chance to lift the Cup, but he’s going to have a bright future in the sport for sure. He’s just a very special athlete,” says Koradi.

Asked what the difference was between this year’s squad and last year’s championship team, Koradi said it came down to depth and experience.

“We only had one returning player on defence and he went down with a season ending injury in week five,” said Koradi, referring to his son Justice who was the leading tackler on the team before he broke his arm. “You can’t have that type of turnover and expect to have the same success. Still, we did pretty good.”

Koradi is uncertain whether he’ll coach the team again next year. His decision will depend in large part on the new rules governing the OPFL which allows for 17-year-olds to play senior varsity with 18- and 19-year-olds.

“There’s a big difference between a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old. It’s like boys against men. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong,” said Koradi, whose coached many of his players since they were eight years old playing tyke.

“It’s been a good run with a few championships along the way, but the kids’ priorities begin to change once they hit 17. They have work and girlfriends. Football’s not the only thing in their lives anymore. So, I guess we’ll see.”

(This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our local business partners.)

 

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