Neelin Spartans quarterback Joe Waters winds up for a throw during a team practice Wednesday evening. The Spartans face the Fort Frances Muskies today at Vincent Massey High School in their Winnipeg High School Football League opener. (COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN)
Neelin Spartans player Lane Tufts leaps for a catch during a team practice Wednesday evening at Neelin. (COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN)
The Winnipeg High School Football League season kicks off today for the Crocus Plainsmen, and the team will face a new challenge.
The Plainsmen have moved up to the John Potter (AAA) Division and they will have their hands full with Manitoba’s best 12-man teams. That, however, doesn’t bother head coach Kevin Boyd.
"It will be a pretty significant challenge, but I think we’re up for it," he said. "We have a lot of good athletes, some good size and some excellent speed and an amazing attitude out there. We’ll be fine."
The Plainsmen return a lot of players on the offensive side of the ball, including quarterback Matthew Mott and most of their receiving corps. However, the squad will be without two big players in offensive lineman Brayden Moroz and running back Victor St. Pierre, both of whom graduated and are playing junior football with the Regina Thunder and Winnipeg Rifles, respectively. St. Pierre led the Kas Vidruk (AA) Division with 1,320 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
The Plainsmen lost more players on the defensive side of the ball including linebacker Steven Siebrecht, who led the Vidruk Division with 60 tackles last year, but Boyd believes that will be made up this season with improved team speed.
"Probably a little smaller on defence, but a huge burst of speed now," he said. "I think the big thing that we’ve got going is the togetherness of the team and the family atmosphere on the team.
"There’s some considerable athletes on the team. It’s easily the fastest team I’ve coached in my 22 years."
The Plainsmen host the Murdoch MacKay Clansmen today at 5 p.m. The game is also part of the Playing 4 a Purpose charity football weekend. Gate admission will be $10, and all the proceeds will be donated to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.
"We’re very honoured that we’re a part of that," Boyd said. "With MS being such a big issue in the Westman area, to do something that will help raise money for research and what have you is fantastic. Quite an honour to be picked to do it."
The Vikings will also play in the Potter Division, but feel much more prepared to do so this season.
Massey played in the AAA ranks for the first time ever last season and finished with a 1-6 record. Head coach Mike Steeves said the team learned a lot from playing in the top division and he hopes the Vikings can use that experience to win a few more games this year.
"I think we’re going to be more competitive this year," he said. "I think in four of the seven games last year we were really competitive and in the game to the end. I think we’ll see that and, with a little more maturity and experience at that level, I think those games that were close and we didn’t pull off in the end will go our way this year."
Massey’s defence kept the team in a lot of games last year, and Steeves expects them to be just as tough this season, led by linebackers Ty Kuz and Steven Gresl. Gresl led the team with 48 tackles last year, while Kuz had 39. Defensive back Wyatt Garden and defensive lineman Eugene Lwanga, both who had more than 30 tackles apiece last year, are also back.
Quarterback Thomas Moroz returns to run the offence.
Running back Matt Bryant, who rushed for 549 yards last season, and receiver Cassidy Obijiaku, who caught 13 passes for 413 yards last season, are also back to support him.
While the Vikings only returned 14 players, Steeves can’t wait for the team to show its mettle when the Sisler Spartans come to town on Friday at 4:30 p.m.
"So excited," he said. "Last year we didn’t know what we were getting into. Now we have a good idea. We’ve played this team before, we’ve seen it before and we know the coaches and their schemes. I think for us, we’re much better prepared than we were last year."
The Spartans dropped from the Vidruk to the Andy Currie (A) Division this season, and that’s just fine with head coach Robert Cullen.
Neelin only returns six players from last year’s squad and has a lot more who are inexperienced. That doesn’t bother Cullen though, as he believes his players will be fine when they take Massey’s field today in their opener against the Fort Frances Muskies at 5 p.m. The game was moved from Neelin as its goal posts aren’t ready yet.
"The young guys have already latched on," Cullen said. "One of our young Grade 9s has already latched on and is showing some leadership skills right now. We’ll be fine. The six that are coming back will bring enough leadership for us."
Neelin will have a mixture of experience and inexperience behind centre with Joe Waters, who’s in Grade 12, and Dayton Black, who’s in Grade 9, expected to share time at quarterback. While Black is young, he is big at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and has come up through the minor football ranks.
Cullen hasn’t emphasized too much on defence yet, but that will change shortly. Players like Waters, Brock Hiltner and Nate Unger are expected to lead the way on defence.
While the Spartans will be young, Cullen isn’t lowering his expectations for the players and expects them to be competitive in every game they play this season.
"You can expect from us what you always expect from the Spartans. We’ll be competitive no matter what division we’re in," he said. "We’re just going in there. We have a lot of young, talented kids out here right now who are inexperienced. A couple inexperienced Grade 12 and 11s. We’re just mixing stuff together here and we should be OK."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 4, 2014