By Dan Plouffe
The new-look national capital high school football league kicks off today with a rematch of the teams that squared off in a thrilling junior final two years ago as the St. Matthew Tigers host the St. Peter Knights.
And when that first whistle blows at 2 p.m., the Tigers and Knights will begin to play in a league that looks quite a bit different across the board in its senior Tier 1, Tier 2, and junior divisions than two seasons ago when the Tigers won their school’s first football championship in 22 years.
That season, there were 11 teams competing in jr. football – which was held in the springtime as a pilot project for the second year in a row – but this year, there are just five jr. teams that entered.
The jr. league for Grade 9 and 10 students needed a last-minute exemption to operate with just five teams, which was below the six-team required threshold for jr. football – already the owners of special status since all other sports need a minimum of eight schools entered to form an official league.
The other big change is that this year’s senior Tier 1 loop includes just four teams. But the premier league whose champions advance toward the OFSAA football bowls looks to be one of the most competitive in years, with the perennially-strong St. Mark Lions and 2010 Tier 2 finalist Franco-Cité joining the Tigers and the Knights.
“If you were picking a favourite, I don’t know who you’d pick,” remarks national capital football convenor John Sunstrum. “But you know, it’s hard to argue with St. Peter’s history. I mean they’ve been so solid for so many years.”
The dynastic Knights have won three consecutive senior championships, but they enter this year with a group that unusually hasn’t captured a title together. The St. Peter Grade 11s have not yet tasted a football championship, although their seniors will be looking for a repeat performance when they won last year’s final over Ashbury.
They definitely won’t be meeting Ashbury this time around though, since the Colts departed for what they hope will be their new long-term home in the CISAA independent schools league, citing the “instability” of the national capital jr. league as their main motivator for the change.
“The junior team hasn’t been a part of our league for a while, and even the senior team had pulled out for a year, so we’ll soldier on,” Sunstrum shrugs. “You don’t like to see your numbers go down. But I don’t think it’s any different than a team like Merivale or Notre Dame who had a team last year and chose not to field one this year. It’s a similar kind of thing – it’s just one less team.”
On top of Merivale and Notre Dame, Bell also won’t compete, but the sr. Tier 2 league does gain the St. Francis Xavier Coyotes, a three-year-old Riverside South school who may well be the league favourites coming off their jr. championship last fall.
“They have some excellent athletes – I mean some phenomenal athletes – and they have some very good coaches,” notes Sunstrum, identifying Sir Wilfrid Laurier, defending champion St. Joseph and Holy Trinity as other contenders.
“It’s interesting – for years, we couldn’t get people to play Tier 2 and now we seem to be having difficulty getting people to play Tier 1,” adds Sunstrum, who believes there are several Tier 2 schools that could be very competitive in Tier 1. “I don’t really know what the reason is. I know that some schools have difficulty getting numbers out and maybe just feel they can’t compete with most of these extremely strong programs.”
That’s the type of scenario that’s unfolded with the team Sunstrum coaches, the South Carleton Storm, who will compete in Tier 2 after a couple of dreadful seasons in Tier 1.
Poor turnout caused South Carleton to withdraw its jr. team at the last minute – then inciting the need for the special exemption – when they had only 14 players out at a practice late last week, including just two linemen.
“When we pulled the plug on the junior team, I said to myself, ‘Gee, if you can’t get 40 students out here, something’s wrong,’” Sunstrum recounts.
But then he considered some math. Even at a large school like South Carleton with approximately 1,250 students, they still need about one in seven students to play football once three-quarters of the population has been removed since half the school is senior-aged and only half of the junior students are male.
“That’s actually a pretty high percentage,” Sunstrum highlights. “And that’s much higher at smaller schools.”
At South Carleton, another contributing factor may be that they pull from such a large geographical area and thus face transportation challenges when athletes miss the bus home to stay for football practice. It’s similar factors such as dwindling overall student populations in some neighbourhoods that often cause teams to withdraw more so than a lack of interest in high school football, Sunstrum maintains.
GARNEAU REJOINS LOOP AFTER LONG ABSENCE
On the other hand, three new schools that weren’t part of the league last year will take to the field for this campaign. Sunstrum was very pleased to welcome back St. Pius and Mother Teresa, and especially the Garneau Gaulois, who become the second French-language school to join the national capital football league after many years where there were only English teams.
“To me, it’s not so much the fact that it’s a French school that I find really exciting, it’s exciting that we’re getting back a program that’s been dormant for probably 25 years,” says Sunstrum, who remembers playing against Garneau himself in the late ’70s. “It’s wonderful to have them back.”
Despite many ongoing challenges and the long-standing debate about which season jr. football should be played in, Sunstrum still gets a rush from the anticipation of that first kickoff.
“It’s great to get it started,” he smiles.
Sr. Tier 1 teams: St. Peter, St. Matthew, St. Mark, FrancoCité
Sr. Tier 2 teams: Colonel By, Garneau, Glebe, Immaculata, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, St. Patrick’s, Holy Trinity, Mother Teresa, South Carleton, St. Francis Xavier, St. Joseph, St. Pius X
Jr. teams: St. Peter, St. Mark, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sacred Heart, Longfields Davidson Heights
Read related story: Ashbury football leaves local NCSSAA to join CISAA independent schools’ league
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