Training camp has a slightly different feel for the Oak Park Raiders football team this year.
Instead of preparing for an early-September matchup against Churchill or Kelvin, the Raiders are getting ready for the trip of a lifetime — a 10-day visit to Ireland, where they’ll face Villanova College of Ontario in the Global Ireland Football Tournament on Aug. 31.
The Raiders will depart on Aug. 25 with a travelling party of 39 players and 16 coaches and support staff.
"It’s becoming more real each day as we get into practice," said Grade 12 middle linebacker Mack Shay, a Charleswood resident. "We’re looking forward to playing in front of a big crowd. It’s going to be a little more intense than what we’re used to."
Oak Park’s game will be the only one to feature the Canadian game, and will be played at Páirc Tailteann, a 33,000-seat stadium that usually hosts Gaelic football and hurling in Navan, a town outside of Dublin.
The Raiders began practising last Thursday, and will continue to work out in Dublin leading up to their game when they aren’t sightseeing.
"What they’ve got planned is unbelievable," said head coach Stu Nixon. "We’re going to the Guinness factory, doing lots of historic tours of the city’s monuments, taking in a Gaelic football game."
All 12 of the high school teams playing in six games on Aug. 31 will get to attend the U.S. college game between Notre Dame and Navy on Sept. 1 at Aviva Stadium.
"Thinking about how we’re playing in Ireland right before Notre Dame and Navy is incredible," Shay said. "The fact we’re opening up for that rivalry will be really intense."
Shay said the players have been working out extra hard during the off-season in anticipation of the trip, and he expects practices to be no different.
"I think guys were training that much harder because they knew we were going and showcasing our school, province and country," he said. "They put in that little bit of extra work."
The team will be watching some game film of their opponent once they get to Ireland, but for now the focus is on getting their systems installed.
"We’ve heard they’re a newer team," Shay said, "so we’re not too sure what to think. We’re just going in hoping it’s going to be a playoff type game."
The Raiders won’t have much time to get over any lingering jetlag. They arrive home on Sept. 3, and open their Winnipeg High School Football League season just four days later against the Vincent Massey Trojans.
"It’s not a very forgiving schedule," Nixon said.
Thanks to some support from the business community and several fundraising events, the team was able to offset some of its travel costs. But each player still had to come up with $2,000 to make the trip.