YOUTH football is back in the West End and the participants are hankering for some hardware.
Only four years after tackle football returned to the Valour Community Centre, the Valour Patriots team of players aged 13-14 will battle for Football Manitoba's provincial bantam title.
"We all wear our jerseys with so much pride and we're so happy we can play in our area," said running back Lahai Amara, 13. "Joining this team has really helped me. I've built great bonds with my teammates. Going out there every weekend playing the games, every yard that we get, every touchdown we get, we do it as a team. We cheer our hearts out and we trust each other to do the best each player can."
The Patriots had a 7-1 regular-season record. Their coach, Hiatt Abendschoen, could still be playing in Football Manitoba's Major Football League. But a young coach for a young program was a great fit, as it turned out.
Abendschoen was playing last season for Victoria's Westshore Rebels in the B.C. Junior Football Conference when he suffered a knee injury. He had to miss this season after surgery to repair a torn ACL, so he decided to help out the Valour Patriots.
"I was a bit concerned about being the head coach this year at first because I'm 19, but maybe because I'm a young guy the kids could relate and it's been a great experience," said Abendschoen, who was the team's defensive co-ordinator two years ago when he played his final season with the Kelvin Clippers in the high school league.
"This season, the players all committed to the program. They're a solid group of kids, many of them are friends, and we just came together. We won a couple of games and I just said to the kids, 'We have the opportunity to be part of something amazing here, we just need to work for it' and they all got that."
Lahai said the Valour Patriots believe they can give the powerful St. Vital Mustangs a run for the title.
"I'm expecting a high-intensity game, I feel like it will be a high-scoring game, he said. "We've been here four years now, they (Mustangs) have been there over 60 so they have more experience than us but we have this special pride. If we play as we've been playing for the past few months now, if we play as a family and a unit, we feel like we could walk away with this trophy."
Abendschoen said the Patriots are an important part of the community.
"I live in the neighbourhood, about a two-minute walk away from the field so it's been pretty cool for me to get to know the kids from around the neighbourhood. A couple of them live on my street," he said. "I know football is good for kids. Especially having a program in the inner city, kids are there making good choices."
Frank Zappia, the team's co-director, said it all started when he and the Daniel McIntyre Maroons alumni started football again at the Valour CC after a 25-year absence. Now there are 120 players aged 7-14 playing on four teams in the terminator, atom, peewee and bantam age groups.
"We're really proud of all the kids in our programs and for the bantams to be in the championship is outstanding," Zappia said. "But the main thing for us is to be here in the inner city, providing a place for these kids to play and belong."
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Manitoba Minor: Terminator round robin, 8 a.m.
Rural Grassroots Showcase: Dauphin, Winkler, Ste. Rose, Swan River, 11 a.m.
Rural 9-man Challenge: Ste. Rose Parkland Warriors vs. Neepawa Tigers, 2 p.m.
Midget: North Winnipeg Nomads vs. Eastman Raiders, 4:30 p.m.
Major: East Side Eagles vs. St. Vital Mustangs, 7 p.m.
Atom: East Side Eagles vs. Charleswood Broncos, 9 a.m.
Peewee: North Winnipeg Nomads vs. Charleswood Broncos, 11:30 a.m.
*Bantam: Valour Patriots vs. St. Vital Mustangs, 2 p.m.
Flag Football Showcase: Lockdown vs. Thundercats, 4:30 p.m.
*Sunday at noon, the Valour Patriots will march with their supporters from the Valour Community Centre - Isaac Brock Site, 715 Telfer St., to Canad Inns Stadium, where all the games will be held.