New faces, old rivalries and a charity tilt at Investors Group Field are all on offer as high school football kicks off in Manitoba this week.
The Winnipeg High School Football League season opens today with a AAA-division tilt between the Sisler Spartans and Kelvin Clippers and an A-division game between the Kildonan East Reivers and the Portage Collegiate Institute Trojans. Organizers are looking to wrap the week with a bang: on Friday, the Vincent Massey Trojans will take on the Dakota Lancers at Investors Group Field.
Not only is it the first WHSFL game slated for the new stadium -- they'll play five there during the regular season, including a three-game extravaganza on Oct. 11 -- but it will also raise money for the MS Society.
"That's been one of the things I've been pushing, is we need to get our league more involved in the community," league commissioner Rick Henkewich said, noting the WHSFL also hopes to tap its athletes for children's charity appearances. "(The players) need to see both sides."
Most of the time, of course, those players will be focused on the field, where a wealth of storylines is waiting to spin out. For instance, how's this for a redemption arc: two years ago, the Kelvin Clippers "hit rock bottom," coach Jon Romu said, and was even forced to forfeit a game; as a result, they slipped down to the Kas Vidruk division. But the school had also launched a junior varsity team in that disaster year to develop its up and coming players; last year, alumni from that program helped carry the Clippers to the AA championship.
Now, they're back in the top-tier John Potter division, and looking to make some noise. The Clippers graduated last year's starting quarterback, and will now look to pivot Sebastian Bel to carry the load: the Grade 12 student is a "dual threat," Romu said, who has legs to match his arm. The Clippers will also benefit from the return of running backs Liam Haime and Avery Sharpe, who helped clinch the AA championship last year.
"For the kids, it's a vindication that we can move up and challenge ourselves," Romu said. "The kids are very excited. A lot of them that were on the team last year took it as a slap in the face (to drop down to AA)... now those kids have something to prove. Now we're ready for the next step."
They'll be facing stiff competition, including from the perennial powerhouse St. Paul's Crusaders, a team several coaches agreed could be tough to beat. Crusaders sideline boss Stacy Dainard is a little more reserved: St. Paul's graduated 20 players from last year's team, he said, though they have some veteran offensive linemen who he expects will help their run game jump to life. Still, the Crusaders are preparing for a fight.
"I think it's going to be more competitive than it has been in the past," Dainard said, pointing at division rivals such as Churchill High School, Murdoch McKay and Dakota as among the many threats. "The other teams I think have all improved."
The Oak Park Raiders are another team that's always in the playoff conversation, but they could be facing a steep learning curve. The Raiders are fielding a young team this year, and they lost their star tailback and 2012 WHSFL rookie of the year Brady Oliveira to a Toronto prep school. So most of this year's Raiders squad is one which won the junior varsity championship last year; they'll have to adapt to stiffer Potter division competition.
"I'm optimistic down the stretch, but there's a lot of other good teams," coach Stuart Nixon said. "Every year the scores get tighter and tighter. You never know what's going to happen."
Tougher games only mean good things for the players and the league, as more schools add development programs and push for bigger and better things. For instance, the Vincent Massey Trojans entered the WHSFL in 2009; on Tuesday, they returned from a trip to Hawaii, where they took on one of the state's top teams. True, the Leilehua squad steamrolled the Trojans 65-6, but coach Kelsey McKay said it was a critical learning experience.
"Competitiveness is definitely derived from that kind of thinking," McKay said, noting his kids were amazed by the speed -- and the friendliness -- of the Hawaiian team. "It's bigger-picture thinking. It's great for our kids. They get a perspective of the speed of the game, and the size of the game."