By Martin Cleary
Welcome to the first day of fall and the rebirth of Ottawa high school football, featuring the sport in its pre-pandemic form for the first time in three years.
Players no longer have to wear suffocating facemasks under their helmets. All COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted for contact tackle football. The Ottawa Redblacks have joined the Ottawa high school football huddle to support the interscholastic program.
And the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association varsity football league has seen two schools return after a three-year absence and has expanded with the addition of two schools from outside communities.
After a cancelled football season in 2020 and a truncated 2021 campaign, football is back in business at 12 Ottawa high schools, including the return of Colonel By and St. Mother Teresa from 2019, plus the inclusion of North Grenville District High School in Kemptville and Arnprior District High School.
“It almost feels like normal,” declared Jon Landon, the NCSSAA football convenor and Ashbury College head coach.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t remember the last time we had 14 teams in the league. I’ve been at Ashbury 15 years, maybe it was 15 years ago.”
The 2022 NCSSAA varsity football league kicked off Thursday with three games – North Grenville District at St. Patrick’s, St. Matthew at St. Peter and Arnprior District at St. Mark.
On Friday, Franco-Cité plays at Immaculata, and Holy Trinity and St. Joseph open their seasons at TD Place. A highlight of the Ashbury College Homecoming Weekend on Saturday will be the Colts’ football game against Colonel By, a rematch of the 2019 championship game.
Each school will play a six-game, regular-season schedule this fall. The schools are divided into seven-team divisions and the top four teams in each will make the post-season with cross-over playoff games.
The West division teams are Arnprior, North Grenville, St. Mark, St. Patrick’s, Holy Trinity, St. Joseph and St. Mother Teresa. The East division teams are Ashbury, Franco-Cité, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, St. Peter, Colonel By, Immaculata and St. Matthew.
In the fall of 2019, which was the last year for a full and proper football season, the NCSSAA league had 12 teams. There was no football in 2020. But when the league staged a shortened season in 2021 with plenty of health and safety restrictions, there were only 10 teams as Glebe and Sacred Heart didn’t return after their 2019 seasons.
As the concern about the pandemic is slowly fading and football’s image is improving with better coaching techniques for teaching the basics of the game, the gridiron game has rebounded at high schools in a positive way.
While Glebe didn’t field a varsity team this fall, it is focused on rebuilding its program with a 7-versus-7 format for the Grade 9 students. Ashbury also has a similar 7-versus-7 program as well as its introductory tackle football program for students in Grades 7 and 8.
Mer Bleue and Garneau, a pair of French Catholic high schools in Ottawa, are examining the possibility of entering varsity football teams in the future.
Several months ago, North Grenville District and Arnprior District high schools applied to play in the NCSSAA football league and were approved by Ottawa’s English/French, public/Catholic school boards.
“Beginning last year, they (North Grenville and Arnprior) had no league to play in because of COVID,” Landon said. “They reached out to us and we were at a point that we may not have enough teams.”
While there are eight schools playing senior football in the Kingston and Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association, there is no football in the Eastern Ontario Secondary Schools Athletic Association this year for schools like North Grenville District and Arnprior District. EOSSAA only has co-ed football on its sports calendar for 2022-23.
Landon added the Ottawa Sport and Entertainment Group and the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks also are supporting Ottawa high school football this season. Two regular-season games will be staged at TD Place and the league championship game may be held there in mid-November.
“It all stems from the Redblacks reaching out to me to build a connection,” Landon said. “There’s a game this week at TD Place. We’re trying to have the championship game at TD Place between Nov. 11-17.”
Landon has had a busy September, returning to the classroom as a teacher, serving as Ashbury senior head coach, holding the school’s director of athletics position and being part of homecoming. But looking ahead to a full, football schedule is a good thing.
“It’s a bit of a shock. I took over (being convenor) from Gary Schreider and I’m trying to continue that legacy. It’s great to see the schools playing football,” he emphasized.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.