After a year and a half away from the gridiron, the Winnipeg Rifles are gearing up for their 2021 season debut. Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson says he is reluctant to celebrate the return to play until he is on the field Aug. 22, the day his team is scheduled to play the Regina Thunder in Winnipeg.
"We’ve had a lot of false starts where we thought we’d be good to go," said Wilson.
"It seems like it’s going to be real and there aren’t going to be any holdbacks, but I think when I’m standing on the sidelines for our first game, I’m not sure if I’ll pee my pants with excitement or cry."
Wilson was able to start the Rifles training camp on June 28. Beginning with three weeks of conditioning, and a week of on field football activities, the Rifles coach says training is going well but has taken a lot of effort to get back into the rhythm of coaching.
"It’s funny that you condition yourself, we do other things for a living as well, in saying that it’s almost like a second full-time job." said Wilson.
"It feels good to be out there with the guys, things are moving in the right direction but you still have that inkling that they could shut things down. You have to condition your mind as a coach, after the first week I was tired, but now I feel good."
Currently there are 97 players in the Rifles camp, ranging from 17 to 23 in age. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Junior Football League extended the age cutoff to 23 for this year based on the missed 2020 season. Wilson says he likes how the energy of the group makes him feel young at heart on the job.
"The good thing about being around young people is that it keeps you young," said Wilson.
Based on the extreme heat, Wilson noted the first week of conditioning was rough as several athletes were noticeably tired. The coach says they are however seeing the benefits of those first three weeks as the coaching staff has not had to deal with any injuries or muscle pulls.
Between the 2020 to 2021 class, the Rifles organization went from 153 athletes down to 97, after retirements, job commitments and others losing interest in football, according to Wilson. Out of the potential to have 53 veterans returning from 2019, only 34 returned.
"There were quite a few kids that moved on in life," said Wilson.
"I had some kids that had depression issues coming into the camp, others were lazy, we lost a few more in conditioning and others with doubt that they’d be able to make the team."
In the coming weeks, the Rifles will narrow their roster down to 80 players. Going into August, Wilson says the offence is really starting to take shape with promising results.
"The strength of our team, we’re going to be deeper at quarterbacks than we’ve ever been," said Wilson.
"We have 10 quarterbacks in camp which is a crazy number, out of that we’ll end up with a good group of four to five guys who can play."
"It’s exciting you know, it’s a good group of guys and it’s great to build connections," said Bryson McNeil, a quarterback in camp, who Wilson said has stood out.
"I think I got my arm strength from my mom and I strive to do my best. I’m excited to see what kind of core we can build and see what we look like at the end of the season."
The head coach expects his quarterbacks to have many targets to throw to going into the season.
"The deepest part of our team will be our receiving core because we have a very veteran group coming back so there’s a lot of young dudes who can ball out," said Wilson.
Jake Roger is entering his fourth year with the Rifles organization. The wideout says he has been waiting three years to get back on the field.
"This is my family, there’s nothing else I’d rather do," said Roger.
"I can name pretty much every single guy on this field right now, they ride for me and I ride for them."
Fellow receiver Luke McMillan, is returning from 2019 and is excited to match up against the Regina Thunder with new and old faces on the team.
"Bringing in the new guys, it’s great to see the products that Manitoba high schools have produced," said McMillan.
"Regina will be a redemption game as our last game against them in October 2019 was cancelled because of a snowstorm."
Wilson noted he likes what he has seen from his running backs and the offensive line as he has found you can never have enough good linemen in the league. The Rifles coach suspects his offence might have to carry the team to begin the season.
"Going into the first game, our offence will be ahead of our defence," said Wilson.
"They are a little older and more mature, but I think the defence can catch up."
Wilson says the team is tracking COVID-19 vaccination rates and knows 90 per cent of his players are fully vaccinated going into this week. Based on football regulations from the pandemic, Wilson has to split his practices into two groups as current numbers only allow up to 50 players together for organized sport. The coach would like the provincial government to increase the number to 100 and feels the restrictions were geared for soccer and baseball leaving football out of the fold.
"Fifty doesn’t work for football, at home we dress 65 players and the road team dresses 45 so we can’t play a game right now," said Wilson.
"The problem is our competition. Saskatchewan and Alberta are wide open right now. They are practising like normal. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage if we can’t practise the same way other teams can."
The Winnipeg Rifles are set to play eight games this season in the league’s Prairie Conference. After being away from the game, Wilson explained the attitude the Rifles are going to have when they square off against Regina.
"Resilience is probably more important now than it’s ever been," said Wilson.
"When we get in between the stripes we have to play angry. Walk the line, and play with that feistiness. You never really appreciate things until they are gone."
Joseph Bernacki was the reporter/photographer for The Headliner until December 2021.