The new season is already a numbers game for the Stettler Wildcats.
The Wildcats were on the field for the past two weeks, but they had limited participation during those first seven practices.
Head coach Norbert Baharally said it’s been difficult to run a full practice, not to mention try to prepare for the Wildcats’ season-opening game this Thursday night in Red Deer against the reputable Hunting Hills Lightning, the Central Alberta High School Football League champion last season.
“It’s going to be a tough opponent,” Baharally said after last Thursday night’s practice, the final workout before Labour Day. “They’ve been tough the last few years — won the league championship last year. They’re going to have a good core of returning guys.
“It’ll be a good test for us, just because right now we’re in a difficult position where there’s not a lot of consistency with our guys, as far as routines and getting back to school and all those sorts of things. We’ve been a little sporadic that way.”
Summer vacations, summer jobs, injuries and indifference left the rebuilding Wildcats short of players for the pre-season practices that preceded the opening of the school year Tuesday.
“It was going to be a rebuilding year, for sure,” said Baharally, the William E. Hay Composite High School principal. “But we didn’t think it was going to be like this, as far as the low turnout at practices.
“We’re averaging about 20 guys out to each practice. We haven’t been able to go a full 12-on-12, offence against defence.
“We need to see our guys that have played for us for two years, and even guys that have a year under their belts with the high school team, to start getting out here on a regular basis.”
Graduation gutted the Wildcats last spring, but there’s still experience on board with the likes of third-year players — and league all-stars — Nicholas Baharally, Jordan McCallum and Stephen Zuk.
“Obviously, we’re looking for those guys to play a big part in our team this year,” said coach Baharally.
“Matt Gudgeon is a Grade 12 guy, but in his second year with (the Wildcats). He’s been good. He’s been coming out every day. Beyond that, there’s second-year guys that we’re going to have to look to. Darren Gendre is a third-year defensive back, and he’s going to be playing some other positions on special teams and things like that, so you have to use the experience they’ve had in the past. And they’ll be playing in positions that maybe they haven’t played before, but that’s the situation we’re in.”
For many of the Wildcats, they’ll have to get used to playing offence and defence.
“That’s why you heard the coaches tonight talk about conditioning and being ready, because we’re going to have to be in shape, ready to go. They’re all going to get a lot of playing time.”
Zuk returns as the starting quarterback, while Stettler Cougars bantam graduate Kyle Lawrence is the backup.
“Kyle is looking pretty good for us, as well,” Baharally said. “He’s been here every day, but he hasn’t dressed all the time. He has a little bit of a sore back that he’s nursing, so hopefully he’ll be able to dress for our first game.”
After visiting Hunting Hills at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Stettler travels to Camrose for a 7:45 p.m. game Friday, Sept. 13. The Wildcats’ home-opener is a week later, Sept. 20, against Wetaskiwin. Game time is 4:30.
“For us to be consistent, and to be learning and progressing every time we hit the field, it would be nice to get 30 bodies out here every practice, so that we can run through guys, and run through systems, and be able to do it one time when everybody is there,” Baharally said.
“But at the end of the day, the guys we have on our roster, we get ’em all together, those guys have played football for a few years, so it’s not like we’re totally inexperienced. We’ve got some talent, we’ve got some experience. We just need to get everybody together and get ’em all doing it at the same time.”
One of the rookie standouts last season was kicker Frank van Ommeren, who was expected back in the fold this week after vacationing last week. He’s going into Grade 12.
Another senior, Ryan Gerl, has been sidelined with an injury that carried over from the spring midget season with the Battle River Shock.
Wildcats sophomore Micheal Loblaw of Delburne is back, and he’s brought with him two of his hometown friends.
Among the newcomers is towering Grade 10 student Clayton Page, brother of Wildcat graduate Ty Page, the league’s most valuable defensive player last season.
PROVINCIAL RANKINGS: In the season-opening rankings, Football Alberta slotted Stettler as 10th in the province among Tier 3 schools (those with an enrolment between 450 and 750 students).
This week’s opponent, Hunting Hills, is ranked third among Tier 2 schools (750 to 1,250 students), while H.J. Cody of Sylvan Lake is seeded seventh. The Wildcats host Sylvan on Oct. 9 in Stettler to finish the regular season.