A rocky season for the Stettler Wildcats ended last Friday with a 7-0 loss to the Wetaskiwin Sabres in the Central Alberta High School Football League’s seventh-place game.
By definition, it was an inauspicious setting for the Wildcats, a contender in each of the previous two seasons, including a provincial championship in 2011.
But even before the back-to-back defeats in the league’s consolation round the past couple of weeks, the book had already been written on the 2013 edition of the Wildcats.
“It didn’t look good all year, even since spring camp, as far as numbers go and the commitment of kids,” Norbert Baharally said Friday after completing his 25th year as the Wildcats’ head coach.
“We understand that kids are busy and they’re doing other things. But it’s just one of those sports where if you choose to be involved in football, it’s a full-time commitment during the season, with practice every day and we play one game a week. Every time a practice is missed, it doesn’t only affect your skills as a player. It affects the whole team, because it’s one of those games where you can have 12 players on offence, and 12 different players on defence, and you can get other players in on special teams. So it’s a really highly specialized sport that takes a lot of time to learn and develop.”
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, most of the players with this year’s team didn’t buy into that commitment level. Many of them enjoyed the participation in school sports, but not necessarily the daily commitment that comes with varsity football.
“It’s a game suited for all body types and all skill levels, so we can find positions for players as long as they’re committed and willing to put the time in,” Baharally said.
After losing to HJ Cody Lakers in a playoff game that spelled the end of Stettler’s championship hopes at the league and provincial levels, the Wildcats hung around for consolation play the past couple of weeks.
Baharally still believes that there’s a place for such games in high school sports.
“I think so,” he said Friday night. “I was just talking about that with the Wetaskiwin coaches. Last year, we had some debate around the league about how meaningful these games are, when you’re playing for seventh and eighth place in the league.
“But at the end of the day, it’s not really about us (coaches). It’s about the kids. And I think if you asked the kids, they’d say, ‘Yes, we want to play this game,’ and this year it was our team (sitting in that position). For our Grade 12 guys, it was their last game and they want to play every game that’s possible. There’s no sense taking anything away from them, because it’s all about the kids.
“Today, when we went out on the field, I told the players at the beginning of the game, ‘This is about you guys having fun, and hopefully you had fun all year.’
“Football is not only about winning and losing. You come together as a team and help each other out.”
The Wildcats tried to rally Friday in the absence of senior quarterback Stephen Zuk, who suffered an injury in practice just two days earlier. Rookie Kyle Lawrence stepped up and showed promise in relief.
As they look ahead to the 2014 season, the Wildcats are also banking on the arrival of a crop of talented bantam graduates from the reputable Stettler Cougars’ program.
Zuk is among the 14 graduating Wildcats, seven of whom have been together for three high school seasons, Baharally said.
The other graduates are Nicholas Baharally, Morgan Dayman, Cody Ell, Levi Fisher, Justin Fleischhacker, Darren Gendre, Ryan Gerl, Matt Gudgeon, Jacob Hamel, Matt Kirk, Jordan McCallum, Lucas Milne and Frank van Ommeren.