Life at the top isn’t necessarily a walk in the park.
For the Stettler Wildcats, their reign as the provincial Tier 3 high school football champions will end in a couple of weeks, when a new champion is crowned.
The Wildcats were bumped from the provincial playoffs last Saturday when they lost 31-14 to the visiting St. Paul Lions in quarter-final action.
It marked the end of a 7-2 season for the Wildcats, who had a tough act to follow from 2011.
“I’m very pleased overall with the season that we had,” said coach Norbert Baharally.
“Obviously, it is very difficult to repeat the kind of year that we had last year. It is always hard to defend a title as provincial champions. There are lots of teams and players competing in high school football in Alberta and the odds of winning a provincial title are very slim, let alone trying to repeat that accomplishment.”
This year’s Wildcats returned the nucleus of last season’s championship team. Not only were they defending champions, but also ranked No. 1 in the province for eight straight weeks this season.
“When you are ranked No. 1, everyone will be gunning to knock you off,” Baharally said. “You become a target for all the teams that you play.
“In spite of all of the injuries that we suffered throughout the year, right from our first game, I don’t think that we ever fully recovered as a team from those key injuries. So, all in all, I feel that as a team, we performed very well, with other players playing key roles in stepping in and contributing when we needed them to.”
The Wildcats were dealt a double-whammy on opening day when all-stars Morgan Loshny and Braden Nelson suffered injuries and spent extended periods on the sidelines.
Fellow senior Ty Page was among the notable losses later in the season as the injury bug continued to dog the Wildcats.
After a knee injury put Loshny out of action, Grade 11 student Stephen Zuk stepped up and became the No. 1 quarterback.
“Stephen Zuk did an admirable job this year as a first-year quarterback with us,” Baharally said. “It is a tough position to play and Stephen was up to the challenge and did very well.”
The Wildcats now must brace for the loss of 16 graduating seniors.
“We are going to have to do a lot of work in the offseason with the players that we have returning,” said Baharally, the Stettler coach for the past 25 seasons.
“We will also have to make sure that we are able to recruit all of the Grade 9 players from this year’s bantam team that are eligible to play with the high school team next year.
“Two areas that we are going to be in need of (players) next year will be on our offensive and defensive lines. We are losing some key players there, so hopefully we will be able to find some players to step in and contribute to our team right away.”
Last spring, 12 players from Stettler played with the Battle River Shock midget team out of Camrose, while two others were members of the inaugural edition of the Prairie Fire, based in Red Deer.
“I am hoping that we have a lot of our players try out for one of the midget football teams in central Alberta,” Baharally said of the 2013 season.
“Being able to play with one of those teams would give our guys a huge advantage over other (high school) teams. Playing on a midget team gives the players an extra season of football, which will always be a good thing.”