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This article was published 17/8/2017 (791 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Rifles are trying to change their culture.
After his club finished with a disappointing 2-7 record in 2016 during his first season as Rifles head coach, Geordie Wilson set in motion a plan to do things differently.
The status quo simply wasn’t good enough for a Canadian Junior Football League organization without a league title after 14 seasons.
Wilson said taking on the challenge of building a winner spurred his decision to take over the club, adding he’s determined to end the championship drought. His first order of business in Year 2 was to carefully review the team’s personnel and make some tough decisions.
"I could have had 60 players return, but we brought back 37. In my mind, they weren’t a good fit and people we wanted on the team," said Wilson, who was a Rifles board member before taking over as head coach.
"Some of them were not asked to come back, others didn’t buy in to what we were doing, so they removed themselves."
Beyond pure athleticism, there are two things he looks for in every potential player.
"The No. 1 thing I looked at in players this year is we want to have character people. When you have character people when things go bad they don’t turn on their teammates or coaches. They look inward for a solution," Wilson said.
"The second thing we look for is people that love football. People like football, but if you love football, you want to get off your couch in January to go train because you love the game."
Wide receiver Xander Tachinski checks all of the boxes for Wilson. The fourth-year Rifle said there’s a palpable feeling on the field and in the locker room that things are headed in the right direction this season.
"Before, we had some guys that were big parts of the team but weren’t committed. It was really frustrating playing with guys that weren’t fully committed to winning in the right way. I definitely feel a lot better going into this season from prior years," said Tachinski, who participated in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ training camp earlier this year.
The Rifles opened the season with a dominant performance in Ottawa, defeating the Sooners 51-0 last Saturday. But the real test comes Sunday at 1 p.m. at St. Vital Mustangs Field against the reigning three-time national champion Saskatoon Hilltops.
"They are the New England Patriots of the Canadian Junior Football League. They’re in it every year to win. If they’re not winning a national championship, they’re pretty darned close to winning it. They are the bar that you measure yourself against," Wilson said.
He maintains Saskatoon’s success can be attributed to the consistency and experience of the coaching staff. Hilltops’ head coach Tom Sargeant has been in charge for more than 20 years.
"In the 14 years the Rifles have been around, we’ve never had consistency. There’s been a consistent turnover of guys. We haven’t had that continuity," Wilson said, adding he’s excited about this weekend’s litmus test.
"We certainly respect the hell out of them because they deserve the respect. But we’re not scared of them or intimidated by them. We’re going to go out and play Rifles football."
The Rifles aren’t hoping to take baby steps — their sights are set on winning a Canadian crown. That means goals qualifying for the post-season, hosting a Prairie Football Conference playoff game and advancing to the national championship.
Wilson is determined to guide the Rifles, comprised of mostly Manitoba-born players, well beyond just respectability.
"We represent the city of Winnipeg, we represent Manitoba and we represent all the club teams and high school programs. It matters to me because I want to see Manitoba programs not just compete and have a team, I want to see us win," he said. "Why can’t we win? Is Saskatchewan better than us? Are they better football players than us? No, I don’t believe that for a minute."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TaylorAllen31
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.