Nolan Bower and Jacob Doerksen got a taste of varsity football in Grade 10, then developed a deep appreciation for how fast a high school career can fly by.
Their entire Grade 11 season was washed out due to COVID-19, and the idea of losing a second seemed possible. All they knew was if they’d be able to play in 2021, they’d be ready. The two Vincent Massey Vikings linebackers attended summer camps at the University of Regina, U of Alberta and U of Saskatchewan.
Now they’re back, with a full team lacing up their cleats and strapping on pads for full-contact practices. The whole team was out Tuesday ready to go, tossing and punting footballs around long before head coach Mike Steeves stepped onto the field. It’s clear they know how important it is to make each moment count.
"I always hear Steeves and all the coaches always preach ‘Don’t take this for granted. You never know when your last game is going to be.’ That’s true," Bower said. "This was something we couldn’t control in the past couple of years, this whole COVID thing. That being said, even if you’re still working hard and you know you’re putting in everything you got, still try and add more."
Doerksen wasn’t just some sophomore being pushed past his limits in 2019. The outside linebacker was one of the key pieces to Massey’s defence and finished near the top of the group in tackles.
Bower split time with the varsity and JV teams. He admits he wasn’t quite ready for the jump back then.
"There’d be plays where I’m like ‘OK, ya, I know what I’m doing’ and there were plays where I’m getting absolutely lit up and I’m like ‘There’s a reason why I’m not on here full time.’ … that made me a better player, helped me overall as a person," Bower said.
Doerksen’s next step has more to do with his voice amongst the defensive guys. He started as the youngest guy on the unit, but as a senior he’s a captain and someone the group will lean on in a number of ways, on and off the field.
He aims to take the best parts of all his former teammates leadership-wise and apply them as a supportive veteran.
"I would say more positively. I’m not the tough love kind of person, I’m not going to yell and scream at guys very much," Doerksen said. "Just try to be uplifting, be encouraging. You messed up, be accountable but then move on. It’s always the next play."
Bower and Doerksen are both interested in playing football in some capacity beyond this year. While Steeves just gets a few more months with them, he’s certainly grateful for the chance to be a part of their lives.
"I’ve known them for a really long time. I coached with Jake’s dad, they’ve been around football basically their whole life. It’s something they’re really passionate about and for me as a head coach, it helps me get reinvigorated by this whole process," Steeves said.
"Seeing them put the work in and go to these extra camps really got me motivated.
"Nothing’s beneath them. They’re the first guys to turn on the water hose, first guys to go get cones, first guys to be working hard and getting to practice on time. They do everything."
The season itself will look strange. Due to varying rules about vaccination in Manitoba school divisions, some teams won’t play others unless they’re fully vaccinated. Others, including the Brandon School Division, have not mandated vaccination and have not set a policy to adequately confirm that players and team personnel have their shots.
The schedule, which will likely be approved within the next week, will see Massey, Crocus Plains and Portage Collegiate Institute play mini games at the same field each week, taking on both opponents.
They’ll have a full semifinal and final in October, with the champion possibly playing a Winnipeg squad to close it out.
Steeves feels motivation will still be easy to come by.
"For me, the times I’ve been working hard all day and I get home, it doesn’t matter what’s in the fridge. It’s time to eat. Whatever kind of football you serve up to these kids, they’re going to eat it up," Steeves said.
"I think they’re going to be really appreciative of this season. When you take something away that’s so meaningful, the next time you get it I think you look at it a little differently.
"I’ve never been around a group that’s had more energy for football. Every step, whether it’s the fitness part, whether it’s the contact part, they are up for everything. That’s from the newest kid to the veteran and it’s really fun for us coaches to be around."
Added Doerksen: "You’re still playing football. You just got to make every play count right? Two years ago, who would have known that’d be the last rep for the Grade 11s and 12s that didn’t get another season?
"You really just got to take advantage of every opportunity, regardless of what it is."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen