Wildcats gear up for new season

After a short training camp, Stettler begins title defence Thursday at home to Lacombe

After taking most of Labour Day weekend off

After taking most of Labour Day weekend off

“One-two-three, Cats.”

With that chant, the Stettler Wildcats ended another practice Monday night and signalled the start of another high school football season.

The Wildcats begin their Central Alberta High School Football League schedule at home Thursday against Lacombe.

Game time is 4:30 p.m.

As the Wildcats practised Monday evening, Football Alberta released its first rankings for this high school season and slotted Stettler at No. 1 in the province among Tier 3 schools.

The Wildcats, after all, won the provincial Tier 3 title last season. Key cogs from that team are back in the bid for a repeat performance.

“This is our fourth day on the field with full equipment,” coach Norbert Baharally said during the Wildcats’ Labour Day practice on the eve of the new school year.

“We’ve got two more practices left before we play this Thursday.”

Including three practices last week, it’s been a slightly shorter-than-usual training camp for the Wildcats.

“We’ve learned over the past that when you try to start back too early that you don’t get a good complement of players, because people are still working, or they’re on holidays still, and so forth,” said Baharally, the Stettler coach for the past 25 seasons.

“We kind of make sure that when we do call (the early practice dates), that everybody has a good chance of being here.”

The Wildcats have 37 players listed on their roster, though the turnout for each practice through Monday was about 30 players.

“We have four players completely new to the game — never played before — right from Grade 12 to Grade 10,” Baharally said.

“And then, new to our team this year, with some experience through the bantam (Stettler Cougars) program, we have about eight of those guys.”

On the returning side of the ledger, the experienced Wildcats include about a dozen players who played midget last spring with the Battle River Shock and the Prairie Fire.

“The guys that we do have coming back were a major part of the team that we had last year, that’s for sure,” Baharally said.

“Playing that (midget) season gives them another year of experience under their belt. Lots of guys were doing stuff in the off-season. We had guys that were attending camps in July, as well.

“Our key thing right now, until we get everybody out here, is trying to stay healthy and injury-free. When everybody is here and we have people in positions, we’re looking pretty decent on the offence, and I think our defence is going to be very solid, with the personnel that we have.”

Along with the graduation of nine players from the 2011 championship team, two other Wildcats left the club prematurely. One departed for personal reasons and another has opted to work instead of playing football.

“We lost a couple of guys along the way, for various reasons,” Baharally said. “But we still have all our key players back, all in key positions.”

With just a short pre-season camp, the Wildcats were banking on players reporting in shape.

“It’s not bad,” Baharally said as his players jogged toward the end of Monday’s practice.

“I told these guys on Thursday, when we broke for the long weekend, that they need to thank their conditioning coaches, because I do think we’ve got some of the best coaches in the province running our conditioning for us. I said (the players) are going to thank them for it someday. They might hate it when they’re doing (drills) now, but when it comes fourth quarter in regular season and playoffs, we’re hopefully going to be in better shape than the opponents.”

While some players participated in personal programs this summer, the Wildcats’ camp has included a fourth-quarter workout for the final 10 to 15 minutes of each practice.

“Coach (Mark) Siemens is the guy that organizes that and puts the guys through the paces,” Baharally said. “A lot of the times, he’s doing it with them or leading them, so it’s good for the players to see that.”

Stettler’s first test comes Thursday against Lacombe, which doesn’t appear in the Week 1 rankings.

“They’ll have a good passing game,” Baharally said of the Rams. “They’ve got a good quarterback that played with the Shock with some of these guys here.”

The Wildcats visit Wetaskiwin on Sept. 13 and host Rocky Mountain House on Sept. 20.