At first, surrounded by the gleaming steel and crisp turf of Investors Group Field, Portage Pitbulls pivot Andrew Stasiuk felt a twinge of nerves.
He wasn't the only one who felt that way among the kids of the Manitoba Minor Football Association's atom championship game. But when the kick-off came on Sunday afternoon, those nerves channelled into the joy of the team, and the play.
"I was sort of nervous before, but when I got on the field and played I was fine," Stasiuk said, cheeks ruddy from victory and the whipping wind. "Everybody plays together, and we all care about each other."
The final, a rural Manitoba battle between the Portage team and the Eastman Raiders, marked the first time in the Pitbulls' decade-long history the atom squad went all the way to the MMFA final. Even better, they took it all the way, rolling back from a deficit to win 52-34.
When they won, the kids raised their trophies towards the stands, towards the noisemakers bleating encouragement from a parental sea of Pitbull green. The parents were elated; the teammates always believed.
"It was kind of shocking in the first quarter, when they were winning," running back Colby Irwin said. "So when we came back it felt so great. We all can play hard, and when we work together as a team, we can win any game we play."
So went the first game of the second day of the football championship weekend, which saw five teams walk in as contenders and walk out as champs. The atom final was a rural matchup, you don't get those a lot, and loads of folks from both the Steinbach area and Portage came out in support.
"I said, 'there'll probably be lots of tractors in the parking lot today,' " quipped Pitbulls head coach Miles Irwin.
Hey, that's just fine by the MMFA. The rural atom final was a good thing for the Pitbulls, for the Raiders and the league.
"We really enjoyed it," MMFA president Richard Dudek said. "We're very appreciative that both those teams showed up and worked their way through the season... we often think of rural teams not being the same, and today certainly disproves that quite a lot."
There is a hopeful note there on league-building: MMFA participation has plateaued in recent years, Dudek said, with roughly 2,000 kids involved this season. Sometimes kids' interest in football seems tied to the performance of the local pro team, he said -- and while kids flocked on Sunday to get autographs from Bombers such as Kito Poblah, they have, ahem, come up a little short.
Here's something, though: Dudek watched in the morning, when the seven- and eight-year-old kids of the Old Dutch Crunchers arrived for their fun games at IGF. Their eyes were wide as saucers. Sure, the old Polo Park facility was loved, in its way. But this new one is still bright with possibility.
"I think there's room for more potential in the event itself," Dudek said. "This is sort of our showcase. I think of this as another new opportunity."
That's about the future though, about what comes next. For now, with another season in the books, it's time for the MMFA volunteers and coaches and athletes to enjoy a little rest -- and for some teams, to savour the wins. The Fort Garry Lions peewee squad, for instance, capped their undefeated season on Sunday with a championship trophy, battling past the St. Vital Mustangs for a 24-16 victory.
"We had a lot of good players, and really came together as a team," quarterback Duncan Jowett said of his squad, which came together as something of a fusion. This year, the La Salle Lightning didn't have enough players to field a peewee team, so about nine kids made the drive into the city to practice with the Lions every day. The group clicked from the get-go, from a tough defence to a stalwart offensive line.
One of them, linebacker Joseph Benoit, was named Lions MVP and defensive player of the game on Sunday, after he stood strong despite a severely bruised hand.