When the Wm. E. Hay Stettler Secondary Campus’ football program celebrates its 60th anniversary on Saturday, Oct. 7, it will be a momentous occasion.
For six decades Wildcats have offered the youth of Stettler and area the opportunity to play a sport that connects the community, and learn all the vital life lessons, such as teamwork, leadership, responsibility, and commitment.
Captaining that ship for 30 years has been current head coach, Norbert Baharally.
“It has been a real honour to be part of a program that is so rich in tradition and history,” Baharally said. “Over 60 years it’s hard to believe that there have only been eight head coaches.”
Community member Patty Steen, who has also been the manager of the program the past few years had four of her boys participate, and three graduate from the program.
“Our first son, Joseph, played from 2004 to 2006 when the bantam program was just getting started, so many teams in the league were in the same position of having a lot of novice players in Grade 10 who had a lot to learn quickly,” Steen recalled. “There was a level of dedication and commitment then that I don’t think we see as much now, because there were fewer sports available to our teens then, and, knowing that they only had three seasons to enjoy this game they loved so much, made the players really committed and persevere, for their coaches and their teammates.”
Steen added that she and her family watched their boys win and lose, play in unbearable heat and cold, rain and snow, winter winds that froze them as spectators and soldier on.
“We watched as our boys learned to win and lose graciously, go out and hit an opponent hard enough to knock him on his butt then lend a hand to help him get back up, knowing that that was how the game was to be played,” Steen said.
Theren Churchill, one of the players, who played from 2010 to 2012 for Stettler Wildcats, and now plays for Regina Rams, said, “To this day, I often look back at my times I played for them, winning a provincial championship in 2011 and the friendships created with teammates and coaches that I still keep in touch with today.”
Churchill added that during his time with the Wildcats, he found his passion for the game of football.
“Everything I’ve learned from the coaches and how important hard work is to be successful, I have carried over to my junior and university career,” Theren said. “I always remember where I came from and am proud to be from Stettler, and I’m thankful for the continued support from Stettler and the Wildcats program.”
Changes through the years
Over 30 years, Baharally said that he has noted some very distinctive changes.
“Well, to start with there are no more morning practices, no cheerleaders, no team doctors, with most of our players driving to school,” Baharally said with a chuckle, looking back on the years. “Now players are only allowed to play three years of high school, compared to earlier years when they would have to play for three years before earning the privilege of getting a Wildcat jacket!”
Just five years behind, is Guy Neitz, the current offensive coordinator of Wildcats, who has been coaching the program for 25 years.
“My first introduction to the Wildcats program was listening to the play by play of their games on the radio coming home from church in the car,” reminisced Neitz. “That was a big deal to a young man who was still in Junior High with a love of football.”
Neitz said that was sometime in 1981-82, and the following year he started playing, with 1985 being his last year.
The first year they lost in the League Championship 7-6 to Lacombe, then in 1984 he broke his femur, and in 1985 they won the League Championship against Delburne/Riverglen and advanced to their first Tier 2 Provincial Championship only to have it cancelled due to extreme cold.
“Very few of those players know that we were declared Co-Provincial Champions 15 to 20 years later,” Neitz said. “The biggest change has come in terms of equipment, the level of protection, and comfort that the new helmets provide.”
According to Neitz, the players have more opportunities to go to development camps, private clinics, and training programs.
“With the Spring Midget leagues our players have access to different coaches and systems to improve and work on their skills and experience,” Neitz added. “Probably the biggest change in the last two years has been the safe contact program. The intent of the program is to reduce concussion issues by teaching players how to tackle in a way to keep their heads out of the contact.”
Stettler community’s role in shaping Wildcats
Baharally said that the program has kept getting stronger and growing, only because of such great community support.
“The community’s role in supporting our football program has been fantastic, and I believe that because we have such a long and rich tradition of football in our community,” Baharally explained. “There have been many individuals that have been a part of our program. I remember when I first came here, G&H foods that was owned by Don Gillespie was one of our biggest supporters.”
G&H Foods supplied the Wildcats with everything that they needed in terms of food. Oranges at half-time to hot dogs and hamburgers at the concession, and was also one of the major sponsors with Wildcats’ first score clock at the high school field.
“Now, there are other businesses in town that have carried the torch of helping and donating in any way they can,” Baharally stated.
Neitz said his first year of coaching was in 1993 with Baharally and Neil Humphreys, and it has been a great source of pride and accomplishment for him.
“Just to see the program achieve such a level of consistent success the last ten years, similar to the teams had had during my youth,” Neitz noted. “It is a pleasure to see these young men I have coached now as grown-ups and coaching the minor football teams in our community.”
Neitz also added that it has always been amazing for him to see the support that they receive from local businesses and parents.
“We have 60 years of former players and coaches who have sweated, bled, cheered and mourned with us at the Wm. E. Hay football field,” Neitz said. “They have forged their bonds of fraternity with community and teammates; they understand the commitment, determination and perseverance it takes to have success on the field and in life.”
The facilities that the Wildcats enjoy now have mostly been built through community donations and volunteer effort, according to Neitz.
“For every Provincial Championship run we have been part of the community has donated funds so that our players and team can cover the costs of transportation and lodging, and that’s huge,” Neitz said.
As the Wildcats ‘family’ prepare to celebrate their 60th anniversary, Baharally said that he hoped to visit with all of the players, coaches, trainers, and anyone who have been associated with the team through the years.
“I hope that we have a great turnout of alumni and fans, and can celebrate 60 years of Wildcats football in our school and community, together.”