Whatever happens on Friday, when high school football's top teams duke it out in semifinal games, the Dakota Lancers will mark a milestone, in a way.
For the Lancers, just four seasons into their existence, it is the end of the beginning. There are just two players left from that very first Dakota squad, the one that popped into the Winnipeg High School Football League in 2010 and marched forward undefeated. The two are linebacker Derek Milani and offensive lineman Brody Jones; both their fathers help coach the team. Both athletes are now in Grade 12.
So yeah, the pair want to go out with a bang. "Definitely," Milani, 17, said on Wednesday. "I want to be in that final."
First, the Lancers will have to battle past the Murdoch McKay Clansmen in John Potter Division semifinal action on Friday night. The two teams didn't face each other in the regular season this year, so they know each other mostly through film and reputation: the Lancers have a stout defence. The Clansmen can burn defences through the air. That's the kind of match-up that makes for heart-pumping football.
"It's going to be a real battle in the trenches," said Milani, who was the WHSFL's defensive player of the week to close the regular season.
Whichever of the teams punches a ticket to next week's final, time will tell, but a shot at winning it all would be a fine legacy for the last of Dakota's original gridiron crew. Four seasons ago, this team was brand-new, the first to come out of the Louis Riel School Division. Many of the players that first year had never played football before, but they rolled unbeaten to the Currie division final anyway, and won it all.
Still, Milani remembers that team as one that was finding its way. "We were a new team, and we didn't really have an identity," he said. "We were trying to just start out on our feet. Over the years, as different leaders stepped up, I guess we just really found our identity, became a real team."
Winning makes for a pretty good identity: in 2011, the Lancers moved up to the WHSFL's AA Kas Vidruk division. They won there too, storming as high as the semifinal. That was enough to give them a pass up to John Potter Division last year, and they made it to the final four then too. Now here they are again, in familiar playoff territory.
That's all well and good, but the value of those wins runs deeper than that. In the course of just four years, coach Ray Jarvis has watched kids come in knowing little about football, and grow into confident athletes. He's seen some players scarred by tough childhoods, teetering on the academic and social edge. Now, they do their homework before football practice. They're settled in, they're finding success.
"As much as you want to have the wins and the championships, that's all neat... but seeing them grow as young men and athletes?" Jarvis said. "Kids are blossoming, and looking to see where they can take this."
For now, they'll take it to the Eastside field, where the semifinal is waiting on Friday night. For 16 Grade 12s, this will be their last high school football tilt. They helped open the first chapter of Dakota football, and they want to end it right. "This team, above all others, is just a team," Milani said. "We don't have just one captain that is above all the rest. I hope that follows through in the next years, the legacy of Dakota boys having each other's back."