Some high school football teams try to arrange exhibition games outside the city to sharpen their skills before the season begins. The Oak Park Raiders are heading off continent this summer.
The Raiders will be taking on Villanova College, a Toronto private school, in the Global Ireland Football Tournament, or GIFT, on Aug. 31.
The game will be played in a 20,000-seat stadium in Navan, a town about 50 kilometres northwest of Dublin. It will be one of six high-school contests that day in three venues around the Irish capital, but the only one to feature the three-down game.
The next day, the teams will all be in the 51,000-seat AVIVA Stadium to watch Notre Dame take on Navy in the Emerald Isle Classic.
If the Raiders weren’t already excited for the upcoming season — and the chance to avenge their ANAVETS Bowl loss to St. Paul’s — this trip has them even more eager to get back on the field.
"When I first heard about it I almost didn’t believe it," said captain Ryan Patterson, a Grade 11 student. "It’s one of those opportunities that never comes about. We’ve got tons of guys in the weight room really excited about the season. We want to get together and win one this year."
The idea for the trip was born when head coach Stu Nixon received an invitation last December that went out to the top 25 ranked teams in Canada.
"I happened to be the first to respond," Nixon said.
The coaching staff discussed the trip’s viability and held a meeting for parents in January, after which the decision was made to go ahead.
Since then, coaches and players have been on an all-out fundraising blitz. The week-long trip, which includes plenty of time for sightseeing, comes with a $3,500 price tag for each player. If the team manages to raise its goal of $100,000 the cost would be reduced to a more manageable $1,400 to $1,800.
With the help of many local businesses, almost all of whom have some connection to the Oak Park football program, the team has raised $62,000.
"It’s going to be a phenomenal experience, but we need support," Nixon said, adding that the coaches are all paying their own way. "We want all the families to (be able to) afford to send their kids."
The Raiders are particularly proud to be playing in the first Canadian football game in the tournament’s history.
"It’s huge not only for our program but the whole game," Patterson said. "To showcase this game in Ireland… it will be nice to represent the Canadian game."
Nixon said the team’s training camp will definitely be disrupted by the travel schedule, but the positives of the trip far outweigh any rust that the team might show early in the Winnipeg High School Football League season.
"It means we’re going to have to do two-a-days during the first week of practice instead of the second week," he said. "I think if we can have a first game against an opponent that’s not going to be a St. Paul’s type of challenge that would be very helpful."
The Raiders will hold a social on April 28 at the Thirsty Lion Tavern. To inquire about sponsoring the team, contact Nixon at email@example.com.