Football High Schools

HIGH ACHIEVERS: High school football is back and ‘it felt like one big step forward’

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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

Liam Campbell of the St. Mark Lions (left) and Connor Ronberg of the St. Joseph Jaguars were foes on the field but mostly just happy to be back playing high school football. Photo provided

By Martin Cleary

Long-time friends Connor Ronberg and Liam Campbell played a football game Tuesday morning.

It didn’t matter that they were on opposite teams, Ronberg serving as a defensive back and special-teams player for St. Joseph Catholic High School Jaguars, and Campbell positioned at linebacker and being a co-captain for St. Mark Catholic High School Lions.

The fact they handled their COVID-19 pandemic challenges during an extended four-week training camp and were about to confront each other in the first National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association football match in almost two years was somewhat historic, heart-warming and honourable.

Having the opportunity these days to put on the football uniform, board a school bus at 8:15 a.m. to travel to Minto Field and run onto the field was victory in itself. One team would win the game, that being St. Mark 21-3, but the looks on the faces of the players, coaches and officials gave the impression everyone would leave the green gridiron feeling like a champion.

After the game, which saw running back Mason Boomhower, quarterback Mason Wilson and cornerback Ben Strutt score St. Mark touchdowns, Campbell and Ronberg found each other behind the stands. They took off their jerseys and shoulder pads and posed for a photo taken by a family member. Foes on the field, but friends off the field. And both feeling good about the game’s outcome.

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For the first time in almost 19 months, student-athletes have started or will start to represent their high schools this week in golf, tennis, football, soccer, field hockey and volleyball. The ever-present pandemic brought NCSSAA varsity sports to a halt in March, 2020.

“I had not been that nervous for a long time,” said St. Mark head coach Andy Castellarin. “I could feel nerves, jitters and I had butterflies.

“But it was such a great day for football. The school, the kids and the community were excited. It felt like one big step forward. We had come back. There were a lot of smiles on the sidelines and dialogue among the coaches. It was a big statement.”

As opening games go in Week 1 of a high school season, it had intensity, scoring and a number of areas to work on rather quickly. But the coaches were left with a good first impression.

“The players were nervous and the bus ride (to the game) was quiet. In the first quarter, there were nerves, but everything turned OK in the second quarter. They were just so happy,” Castellarin added.

The season opener came after a lengthy and pandemic-influenced training camp. For the first two weeks, players practised without wearing their football gear as the teams waited for more health and safety guidelines from the NCSSAA and Ottawa Public Health.

When the players could put on their equipment, they had to wear facial masks over their mouth guards. But this meant the players had to cut the tail off their mouth guards as they were attached to their helmets. Everyone was fine with that. They were playing football again, after a record-setting break.

During the game, the officials couldn’t touch or place the ball on the ground. A player would set the ball on the ground as indicated by the foot position of the official.

The yard-stick crew worked the sidelines, but was never called on the field for a close measurement. The officials did that visually and no one complained. At the end of the game, handshaking was banned and replaced by the two teams facing each other on the field and clapping for each other.

The first two football games for each of the 10 participating schools will take place at either Minto Field or Millenium Park. For the third and fourth games, players could anticipate playing games at their home schools. At this point, fans were strongly discouraged from attending games.

Meanwhile, Holy Trinity Tornadoes marked their return to NCSSAA football with a 12-0 win over St. Patrick’s Irish on Tuesday.

The NCSSAA fall schedule started Monday with the West Conference boys’ golf championship, and the girls’ championship and nine-hole clinic on Tuesday at Manderley on the Green. West Conference tennis matches also started at Barrhaven Tennis Club.

All OFSAA-division girls’ field hockey matches for the six registered schools will be played at Minto Field. Each school will play five games. Schools in the tier 1 and tier 2 divisions will each play a one-day tournament.

The schedule for girls’ senior (tier 1-OFSAA, tier 2) and junior (tier 1) basketball, boys’ senior soccer (OFSAA, tier 1, tier 2) and boys’ senior volleyball (tier 1-OFSAA) will allow home-and-away games. The basketball and soccer seasons will have a six-game regular season, while volleyball teams will play seven games each.

But the traditional fall high school schedule has a couple of changes. Rugby 7’s has been switched to flag rugby because of referee availability. Swimming may not be held because of restrictions to the number of people allowed in a pool venue.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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