Babatunde Adeleke (right) and the St. Francis-Xavier Coyotes are legitimate candidates to end the St. Peter Knights’ reign atop the senior Tier 1 football world. Photo: Dan Plouffe
By Dan Plouffe
As sports across the board were thrown into turmoil this fall by the labour strife at public schools, the high school football landscape has been altered considerably as well – although it’s ongoing issues that came to a head this season that caused the changes moreso than the political conflict.
After receiving exemptions in recent years to operate with less than the required eight teams, there is no national capital junior (Grade 9-10) football league this season, as only four schools intended to enter squads. Lack of players, coaches, equipment and officials have been persisting challenges.
“I think a solution has to be found where there’s junior and senior football,” says Rick Varden, who coached the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Lancers in the jr. final last year. “I hope it’s not the last we see of junior football, but it may be the last we see of it in the format we used to have.”
Ideas have been floated such as playing 7-on-7 or 9-on-9 football, or creating a league for Grade 7-9 players – particularly intriguing for French and Catholic schools where high schools run from Grade 7-12. Franco-Cité is playing in a Quebec league for Grades 7-9 this fall.
And there’s talk of restarting a springtime jr. league. In the final year of a pilot project in 2009-10, 11 schools entered, although conflicting springtime seasons with rugby was the main reason it didn’t continue previously.
“There is a will” to have a jr. league in some form, adds Varden, highlighting the importance of jr. football to high school freshmen who have a tough time competing on the field against bigger seniors. “It’s nice when you can get a student in Grade 9 and the first week of September for two hours every day after school you know what they’re going to be doing. It’s that link to the school that’s really important.”
With 65 kids ready to try out for the defending jr. champions’ team, news that there’d be no league this fall was “devastating” at St. Peter Catholic High School. Since the sr. squad had been together for over three weeks already when they learned there’d be no jr. league, no jr.-age players were added to the Knights sr. team.
“Right now we have jr. boys with nothing to do at our school,” says coach Jim Mick, noting the Knights’ jr. program plays a key role in the run of four consecutive championships his sr. side has enjoyed. “It’s important because those kids get exposure to the game. Some of the simplest things. They learn the game, they learn about positions, they learn the fundamentals, and they learn about what it’s like to wear blue and silver on the football field.”
New Format for senior ball
At the sr. level, league administrators have implemented a new format in an attempt to combat the dwindling number of schools entering the Tier 1 loop. Only four teams have played at the top level this year and last, while the Tier 2 league features 12 competitors.
After the first three games, the top four T2 teams in the standings will each play a pair of contests against T1 squads. They’ll all return to their original levels for the sixth and final regular season game as well as the playoffs. The hope is that some of the T2 schools may realize they are T1 calibre, coaches explain.
“I think it’s great,” Mick states, adding that the T2 league was created to get more kids involved in football, so smaller schools could have teams and be competitive, and new schools could develop programs. “It wasn’t for teams to drop down to win championships.”
Colonel By, Franco-Cité, St. Pius, St. Joseph, Mother Teresa, St. Patrick, and the defending T2-champion Lancers are all contenders for the T2 crown.
“We have a lot of talent at skilled positions,” highlights Varden, who elected to stay in T2 since his team had under 30 players. “We just don’t have enough bodies. We’re scrimmaging 12 against 10, 12 against 9. It’s not really productive.”
St. FX Coyotes on prowl to test St. Peter supremacy
There’s one more place where a sweeping change may occur – the sr. championship throne perennially occupied by St. Peter.
That’s due to the arrival of the St. Francis-Xavier Coyotes in the T1 ranks. Few teams can lay claim to owning a winning record of any sort against the dynastic Knights, but that’s exactly the case for the four-year-old Riverside South school. Two seasons ago, their group won the jr. championship over St. Peter, and now would like to write a similar story in sr.
“They’ve got some athletes that are very, very, very good,” says Mick, who believes St. FX is also a dangerous opponent because they aren’t as familiar with the newcomers’ tendencies. “They seem to be running through some teams.”
Runningback Babatunde Adeleke – who could likely keep his balance in a tornado – is the biggest offensive weapon for the Coyotes. St. FX blasted St. Matthew 42-1 and St. Mark 30-6 to open their campaign prior to a Thursday, Oct. 11 test against the Knights, their unbeaten counterparts.
But head coach Mark Jennings knows it won’t be easy to knock off the perennial school football kings.
“I think we have a chance, but to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man and they’ve been the man for the last four years,” explains Jennings, who missed his team’s playoff defeat to eventual Tier 2-champ Sir Wil last season when his wife went into labour. “St. Pete’s is doing the drive for five, and we’re doing our first year in sr. Tier 1 football. There’s a big difference, but we feel confident that this is our team to do it.”