Wroclaw Panthers rely on domestic talent to clinch first place over Bialystok Lowlanders

The highly anticipated regular season finale between the Wroclaw Panthers and Bialystok Lowlanders had everything on paper. Two potent passing offenses, a clash of the league’s best defenses, a battle of superstar running backs and a likely preview of the Polish title game. When all was said and done, it was an unlikely hero who stole the show in a decisive 37-13 Panthers‘ victory, while the rest of Poland’s brightest stars struggled to break free.

Top billed ball carriers Glen Toonga of Bialystok and Ryan Tuiasoa of Wroclaw both fell short of 50 yards on the ground and when their bell cow Hawaiian left the game with an injury at half-time, the Panthers took over with homegrown backup Damian Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski carried the ball eight times and caught four passes in the second half, slicing through the Lowlanders defense for 179 combined yards and three touchdowns with another 69-yard score called back for holding. The domestic product’s dominance turned the tide in a tight contest and sends the Panthers into the playoffs as Poland’s only unbeaten team.

The Lowlanders came out with fire early and looked poised to challenge for the top seed. Import quarterback Brandon Gwinner led an efficient drive down the field, making use of both his arm and his legs, before connecting with Eryk Makowski on a three yard screen for the opening touchdown. The extra point went wide but defensive end Konrad Paszkiewicz tracked down Tuiasoa for a big loss on the next drive and the Lowlanders got the ball back. Unfortunately, Bialystok struggled to escape their own end after a field flipping punt pinned them at the ten yard line and that gave the Panthers a chance to take control of the momentum.

Wroclaw Panthers WR Jakub Mazan Photo: Wojciech Wojtkielewicz

After a short punt gave them excellent field position, Panthers quarterback Bartosz Dziedzic found Jakub Mazan for a 37 yard gain down the right sideline. Penalties backed the team up and Wroclaw settled for a 46-yard Piotr Golacki field goal to open the second quarter. The Panthers defense got in Gwinner’s face on the next drive to force another punt and Ryan Tuiasoa finally made an impact on the game. The electric Hawaiian extended for a big 16-yard catch to take his team into the red zone, then capped the drive by bouncing off the interior penetration and scampering four yards off the left side to give his team the lead. Hulking Lithuanian Laurynas Orlovicius blocked the extra point but it wouldn’t take long for the Panthers to be right back in scoring position. A sack and two offensive pass interference penalties forced the Lowlanders to punt from their own end zone, giving the Panthers the ball at the Bialystok 30-yard line following a solid return. Corner Mark Labanouski was called for obvious pass interference to keep Wroclaw alive on a fourth down gamble and three plays later a scrambling Dziedzic connected with Jakub Mazan from five yards out to take a 16-6 lead into the half.

The Lowlanders weren’t about to go away easy however. Their defense held the Panthers to a 51-yard field goal attempt to begin the second half and took over in great field position when the kick sailed wide. Gwinner threw a 22-yard strike to Michal Spiczko to get the team into plus territory and did the rest himself. The quarterback didn’t like what he saw downfield, escaped to his right and then walked a tight rope for 43 yards down the sideline to bring his team within three points.

Bialystok Lowlanders RB Glen Toonga #22 being taken down by Wroclaw Panthers LB Hubert Ogrodowczyk #8 Photo: Wojciech Wojtkielewicz

Their opponent’s resurgence seemed to only reinvigorate the Panthers. With import Ryan Tuiasoa sitting out with an ankle injury, Wroclaw got the Lowlanders moving laterally with a series of jet sweeps then faked the motion and countered with backup Damian Kwiatkowski. Tight end Konrad Starczewki and left tackle Sven Breidenbach blew out the left side and Kwiatkowski dashed 45 yards to pay-dirt on just his second carry of the day.

The Lowlanders went three and out on the next drive thanks to a Thiadric Hansen sack but a big defensive play in response kept their hopes alive. Defensive end Daniel Tarnawski got a hand on a Bartosz Dziedzic pass, which was tipped again by Yahor Liatkouski and finally intercepted by German linebacker David Muller. Gwinner looked ready to take full advantage but Rafal Krolewski dropped a wide open touchdown pass up the seam and forced a 41-yard field goal attempt. The Lowlanders’ snap bounced short and kicker Antoni Pamulak could only desperately try to limit the damage before the Panthers took over on downs.

Full off confidence, the Panthers put their foot on the gas. Running the exact same play as their previous touchdown, Kwiatkowski saw daylight again and followed the Daniel Jagodzinski pull for an untouched 63-yard score. A drive later, Jakub Mazan took advantage of another Lowlanders three and out with a 37 yard punt return and Kwiatkowski found the end zone for third time by catching a three-yard swing pass. The Panthers entered the fourth quarter with a decisive 37-13 lead and seemed unlikely to relinquish it.

Wroclaw Panthers RB Ryan Tuiasoa #2 running behind blocking of Rafal Rogaczewski #55 Photo: Wojciech Wojtkielewicz

Nevertheless, Bialystok wasn’t finished with its comeback hopes. Rafal Krolewski made up for his earlier drop, catching the seam route and splitting two defenders before racing 56 yards into Wroclaw territory. A few plays later, Gwinner took off for 17 yards up the middle and the quarterback looked like he was about to score until a desperate swipe by defensive back Szymon Jarmolkowicz knocked the ball loose at the goal line. Hubert Ogrodowczyk recovered the fumble for the touchback and the Panthers took over. A 69-yard Kwiatkowski touchdown in response was called back for holding and a Konrad Starczewski fumble gave the Lowlanders the ball back one more time but relentless defensive pressure continued to keep Gwinner off balance and the Panthers easily closed out the 24 point victory to claim first place in Poland.

Lowlanders quarterback Brandon Gwinner fought admirably to keep his team in the game, going 12 of 27 passing despite several key drops by his receiving corps for 166 yards and a touchdown. Gwinner also ran for 76 yards and a touchdown, though his fourth quarter fumble proved crucial. Normally dominant British back Glen Toonga was entirely bottled by the Panthers, rushing 12 times for 47 yards and adding three catches for 16 more. Eryk Makowski had a team high four catches for 39 yards and a score, while Rafal Krolewski’s lone 56-yard catch was enough to lead the team in yardage.

Wroclaw Panthers DE Thiadric Hansen #1 pursuing Lowlanders RB Krzysztof Czaplejewicz #26 Photo: Wojciech Wojtkielewicz

For the Panthers, Bartosz Dziedzic managed the game with ease and finished the day 20 of 29 passing for 184 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Receiver Jakub Mazan was all over the field with seven catches for 87 yards, plus four carries for 31 yards and handful of big returns. Ryan Tuiasoa had 14 carries for 33 yards, with four catches for 32 more before injury. Both had scores but neither held a flame to Kwiatkowski’s incredible performance in relief, averaging 17.5 yards per carry. That was equally a credit to the Panthers dominant offensive line, who opened wide lanes and kept Dziedzic upright all game long. On defense, former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Thiadric Hansen was his usual dominant self with three sacks.

While undeniably their closest win of the season, Saturday was also the Panthers most impressive. Riding domestic talent at all offensive skill positions, Wroclaw rolled to a decisive victory over their chief rival and proved that they are the undisputed favorites for the Polish title. With Tuiasoa’s injury classified as minor and the import back expected to return for the playoffs, the question must be asked: Is their anyone who can challenge the Panthers?

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.