On a couple of counts, Stephen Zuk didn’t want his high school football career to end the way it did last Friday.
Zuk, a pillar of the Stettler Wildcats’ program for the past three years, was forced to sit out his final high school game, a 7-0 loss to the visiting Wetaskiwin Sabres.
The 17-year-old quarterback injured his left hip in practice last Wednesday, just two days before the seventh-place game in the Central Alberta High School Football League.
“It was pretty tough, watching the last game,” said Zuk, who needed crutches on the sidelines. “Definitely, it wasn’t easy.”
The wiry Zuk has been a model of health throughout his high school career, and he hadn’t previously missed a game because of injury. But he took a tumble in practice that left him in considerable pain.
“I had jumped up for a ball during a play and just fell wrong, right on my hip,” Zuk said. “So it was just kind of an accident. I just landed on it wrong — that’s all.
“It wasn’t good, the front of my hip. I went to the hospital after practice Wednesday night and (doctors) said to take it easy and use some crutches.”
Spectator status was unfamiliar territory for Zuk, who had been discussing his iron-man streak with fellow graduating Wildcat Nicholas Baharally just days earlier.
“We were just talking about the lack of injuries I’ve had throughout my season, or my high school career,” he said. “Then, this happened. Unlucky, I guess.”
The Wildcats were lucky to have Zuk on board during his high school years. He stepped up to the plate in 2011 and 2012 after injuries sidelined quarterback Morgan Loshny, and he was a constant this season in a lean year for Stettler’s program.
“It was tough, with the (sparse) numbers we had and stuff, lack of commitment,” Zuk said. “But we did better than I thought we were going to. Winning our division, that was good. We come out with a positive, with that.”
Another memory from this season was a night game in Stettler. Although the Wildcats had played under the lights elsewhere, they broke new ground at home with a night game made possible with temporary lighting on the high school field.
“That was a fun night,” said Zuk, a competitive baseball player who has also played night games on the diamond. “I guess anytime you play under the lights, it’s cool. But it was a good night. I was surprised with how good the lights were for that game.”
The Wildcats beat the Ponoka Broncs 54-14 in that mid-season game.
Zuk’s athleticism served him well in his high school career. Despite his lean stature, he stood his ground against heavy-hitters.
“Stephen got thrown around a little bit this year and got hit hard a couple of times, took a few good sacks, but Stephen is a tough guy, too,” said teammate Baharally. “And it’s just really unfortunate and bad luck for him that the one game out of his whole high school career that he had to miss was his last high school game ever.
“But he’s done well.”
Wildcats coach Norbert Baharally said it took a painful injury to sideline the humble Zuk.
“That was just a real unfortunate thing for him, to take away his last high school game on just a real freak accident,” said the Wildcats’ 25th-year coach.
“He’s in a lot of pain. There’s no way he could have played. When he walked off the field Wednesday, I knew right away, ‘holy mackerel, something is wrong with him.’
“It looked like an innocent enough thing, where he just landed on his back or side a little bit, but it was more than that, obviously.”
Baharally watched Zuk’s progression not only at the high school level, but also as part of the midget Battle River Shock program.
“Stephen did a great job for us this year,” Baharally said. “Even when he played midget football in the spring, same thing. I saw the development with him as a quarterback. He’s got the right body type. He had a great year, I thought, throwing the ball and running our offence for us.”
Although his high school football career has come to an end, Zuk still has other scholastic sports on his calendar. He plans to return to the basketball Wildcats, who begin their tryouts later this month, along with football teammates Baharally and Justin Fleischhacker.
The seasons are seemingly seamless for the likes of Zuk, who played midget AA baseball the past couple of summers with the Lacombe Dodgers, along with football teammate Jordan McCallum and former Wildcat Riley Anderson.
McCallum, also graduating from the football Wildcats, played his final high school football game last Friday and headed straight for the rink to tend goal with the midget A Stettler Legion Blues.
As for football after high school, Zuk wasn’t certain what might be in store for his future.
“I guess I’ll see where it goes,” he said. “But I’m not too sure right now.”
Last week, in Zuk’s absence, Grade 10 rookie Kyle Lawrence handled the quarterback duties for the Wildcats’ final game.
“He did a good job,” Zuk said of Lawrence. “The passes were good. He played well. He’ll keep improving as time goes on and he should be fine.”
Lawrence and freshman Jeremy Kirk both have quarterback experience from their days with the Stettler Cougars bantam team. Jordan Lane, this season’s quarterback with the Cougars, graduates to the high school team next year.