By Dan Plouffe
The high school junior football season won’t be starting up the first week of school this year as was previously the norm. Instead, the junior boys will play in the springtime — a move that had to be made due to a shortage of officials.
“(Referees) simply can’t get out of work during school hours the way they used to be able to,” explains National Capital Secondary Schools Athletic Association (NCSSAA) football convenor John Sunstrum, a former Gloucester High School coach who now teaches at South Carleton.
The NCSSAA draws from the same pool of officials as the Seaway Valley league (which stretches to Kingston) as well as the community football organizations. With dwindling numbers of referees available — especially in the after-school slot — the NCSSAA had the option of holding night and weekend games in the fall or moving the junior season to the spring.
Due mainly to the family commitments of teaches, who often also coach their own kids in community sports, it was decided that the move to the spring was the better option. That created a laundry list of new issues to be discussed.
“Every school has their own issues with staffing, coaches, teachers’ family lives, the cross over between rugby and football,” notes Gloucester head of physical education Todd Fortier, whose school combined its junior and senior programs into a varsity squad when it lost coaches to retirement and transfers a couple years ago. “What might be good for one school might not be good for another.”
The NCSSAA toyed with the notion of moving the junior boys rugby season to the fall since many of the rugby teams count on large numbers of football players to stock their rosters, and athletes wouldn’t be able to play both at the same time. But that idea lost steam because it would mean that the schools without a junior football team — which make up the vast majority of the NCSSAA’s membership — wouldn’t have a major junior boys team sport in the spring.
“For years, senior girls have had to play three major sports in spring — rugby, soccer and touch football — and it’s thrived forever,” NCSSAA athletic coordinator Rick Mellor points out. “By moving junior boys’ football into the spring, they’ve got two. If the girls can do it, the boys should be able to as well.”
Mellor acknowledges, however, that the coaches of the male football and rugby programs often demand more of a time commitment from their players. That led to fears that junior football may disappear as schools choose to run varsity programs in the fall in order to preserve their strong rugby programs in the spring.
Although some schools have taken that route, Mellor’s counterpart, Laura Gillespie, expects there will be a junior league the same size of last year’s eight-team loop since other schools that previously only had a varsity team plan to add a junior squad.
“Having it in the spring made it more feasible for some schools to have a junior football team,” Gillespie explains. “You can have one set of coaches, and to some extent one set of equipment.”
Sunstrum expects there will be some bumps in the road this season — the first games may have to be played on turf depending on how quickly the snow melts — but overall he feels positively about the future of junior football.
“I’m kind of a traditionalist and I think that football should be played in the fall, but once you look beyond that, (the move) makes a great deal of sense,” says Sunstrum, noting a handful of evening and weekend games may still be in the cards to accommodate officials. “Having games outside the traditional hours may help to publicize it more to people in the community. Hopefully it will grow.”
The impact of the junior football season change is widespread and the decision will be reviewed at the end of the year by the NCSSAA’s futures committee — charged with the task of planning out the high school sports schedule for a longer period of time. Here’s how the east end schools that ran junior football programs last year are dealing with the change:
SIR WILFRID LAURIER
At Sir Wil, the two-year-old junior football program was scrapped in favour of a varsity team. Phys ed head Donna Laramée-Kelly called it “the lesser of two evils” since the Lancers are very strong in rugby.
“We weren’t happy with (the season change),” Laramée-Kelly says. “We had spent a lot of money creating our junior program, but in the end, that’s the way the league is and we just have to go with it.”
Sir Wil also wasn’t in support of moving the junior boys rugby season to the fall because very few have played the sport prior to arriving in high school.
“Rugby is not one of those games that you can pick up and run with it in the first couple of weeks,” says Laramée-Kelly, noting fall phys ed classes can introduce the game to newcomers. “You need a couple of years of junior to develop your skills and technique and Grade 9 boys in September are different from Grade 9 boys in May.”
Laramée-Kelly assures that there is still a place for a Grade 9 walk-on to the varsity football team, and notes that the only way anyone who wants to play football can really get cut is through poor attendance or poor academic performance.
Things at St. Peter are a little more up in the air. Phys ed head Sheila Kerwin says there will have to be meeting between all the coaches and students to decide what happens this year.
“This is a huge planning issue,” Kerwin notes. “Suddenly we’ve moved it to the spring and we really don’t know: are we going to have a (junior football) team? Are there going to be enough teams for a junior football league? Are we going to have both junior rugby and junior football?
“We’re hoping to have both teams — that is our goal. But that’s a huge commitment.”
Kerwin would have loved for junior football to stay in the fall, and hopes that the officials shortage can eventually be solved and the sport can move back.
“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” she says. “This year we have a huge challenge. But our goal is to continue to provide our students with the best opportunities to participate on a school team and keep our programs going.”
At St. Matthew, the plan is to continue the junior football program in the spring, although not without some bitterness from coach Al Rozman.
“The logistics in the spring still have me worried,” Rozman says, noting his biggest concern is for the safety of the players, since he’ll have to prepare his new recruits mostly in the gym before they take the field for a compacted spring schedule. “I don’t have any idea how this is going to work. It could be a nightmarish season.”
Rozman will have to modify his spring coaching schedule, trying to play double-duty while leading the girls’ touch football program at the same time as junior football.
“I plan to have morning practices for the girls and afternoons for the boys and try to not kill myself,” says Rozman, who has arranged to have a teacher supervisor and an assistant coach at touch football games when the two sports conflict. “Ten or 15 years ago, (coaching both teams) wouldn’t have happened. My four kids are grown up now, but if I was younger and starting my family, it would be a lot tougher.”
Rozman does see a few benefits with the spring season — they won’t be competing against the hockey season or community football for players and coaches, but he expects “it’s going to be very bush league compared to other years.”
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