Fighting through tears, with a handful of equally emotional teammates surrounding him, Lahai Amara tried to explain why a football game — this football game — meant so much.
The Valour Patriots bantam football team had just lost the provincial championship game, 40-11 to the St. Vital Mustangs Black team, at a windy and chilly Canad Inns Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Mustangs had won plenty of championships since being founded in 1948, and will surely win many more. But for the Patriots, this was the first trip to the finals since the program was established in the West End four years ago.
"It’s been a great honour playing with these guys," said Amara, a 13-year-old running back. "The coaching staff has been great. I just wish it could have ended a little different."
By head coach Hiatt Abendschoen’s estimation, anywhere from one-third to a half of the bantam Patriots have been part of the program since Year 1.
"Four years into Winnipeg Minor Football, and we made it to a championship game," said the first-year head coach, who at 19 is only a half-dozen years older than his players. "The kids worked so hard. No team has made it so far before. The fact we made it here today will encourage more kids to come out and play football in the West End."
The Patriots knew it was a tough matchup against an undefeated St. Vital team, but they held their own in the first half and even took an 11-8 lead in the third quarter. But the Mustangs retook the lead late in the third and never looked back, scoring four unanswered touchdowns.
Amara and his teammates desperately wanted to win a championship in front of a large, and loud, contingent of supporters.
"It was three months and two weeks preparing for this game," he said. "We knew no matter what the outcome was this was going to be our last game together. And it’s emotional that I won’t be able to see these guys again."
While some of the younger Patriots will be back, many of the older players will be moving on to high school football at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute. The Valour program wouldn’t exist without the support of the Daniel Mac football alumni, who wanted to provide quality recreation for West End kids while creating a feeder system for the tradition-rich Maroons.
Abendschoen said he could tell early on that the Patriots had the talent to compete with anyone. What they may have lacked at the start of the season was the fitness required to be a top team.
"At the first practice we came out and I had them do five laps around the field and I had parents complaining about the conditioning," he said.
After a few weeks, though, the players didn’t dread the sprints and the laps anymore. They understood that they were getting stronger and fitter, and the results on the field spoke for themselves.
The Patriots finished the regular season 7-1, and won two playoff games to reach the final.
"We played a good first half, and we played a good whole season," said the coach. "We came together as a team a couple of weeks in and we rocked it."