A step down the right step

Thankfully, Bob Swing isn’t unleashing an all-out blitz on me for this, but the time has come to huddle up on the future of the Muskie ‘A’ football program.
The black-and-gold’s season ended last Thursday in the cold of Canad Inns Stadium in Winnipeg following a 38-0 loss in the WHSFL quarter-finals to the top-ranked and undefeated St. Paul’s Crusaders.
Eerily, this season unfolded much like it did last year.
The Muskies started with a blowout loss in their pre-season exhibition game against the International Falls Broncos. They went on to post a winless record in the WHSFL—coming close to winning a couple of games and coming not so close in others.
They then completed the season by being soundly beaten in the quarter-finals, much like what the Oak Park Raiders did to them last year in a 35-8 win by the eventual league champs.
The Muskies now have ended up on the wrong end of the scoreboard the last 19 times they have strapped on the helmets and laced up the cleats in competition.
After not having had a winless season since 1987, the Muskies now have accomplished the ignominious feat in back-to-back campaigns.
That streak—if not a definitive statement on the status of the program—is certainly worthy of at least pause for reflection.
Three years ago, the Muskies were part of the NorWOSSA conference, where they experienced more than their share of success—sometimes lop-sided—for more than a decade.
But Coach Swing decided that remaining at the NorWOSSA level wasn’t doing his players any favours in terms of helping their development as athletes or people. He wanted them to take on the biggest challenge possible to make the most of their abilities.
So the Muskies aligned themselves with the WHSFL’s ‘AA’ division in 2001 and posted a respectable 4-4 mark in their first season, including a quarter-final loss to the Churchill Bulldogs.
But since ending that regular season Oct. 19, 2001 with a 26-17 road defeat over the Sisler Spartans, the Muskies have not tasted victory. Including today, that’s a span of two years and 10 days exactly.
Think about it. The World Trade Centre clean-up had barely got underway. Afghanistan and Iraq still were under dictatorial rule. And Britney Spears was still kissing Justin Timberlake, rather than Madonna.
Now, I’ll be the first to lend my voice to the idea of putting participation as a priority ahead of wins and losses. Swing’s intentions are admirable, and his players seem to believe in what he’s trying to get across to them.
Credit also should go to the local football community for weathering the losing skid with determination and a refusal to give up on their hometown squad.
The Muskie Touchdown Club continues to drum up support for the team. And residents, for instance, still purchase discount cards to help offset the costs of the $35,000+ per year program.
The Muskie ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams are providing the opportunities to help further the skills of younger players who want to one day be integral parts of the senior squad.
But all the surrounding optimism still is tied in with the team’s performance on the field. And the last two years have shown that—despite a ton of hard work and commitment—the Muskies don’t have what it takes to be considered in the same class as the other and more heavily-populated Winnipeg schools in the ‘AA’ division.
Losses can be sugar-coated any way you choose, but 19 in a row is 19 in a row. The solution seems simple, yet would take a large philosophical shift on the part of Swing and others in charge of the Muskie football program.
Plain and simple, the Muskies need to drop themselves into the ‘A’ division of the WHSFL against the likes of former foes such as the Kenora Broncos and Dryden Eagles, along with others like the Maples Marauders and Miles Mac Buckeyes from Winnipeg.
There are plenty of skilled athletes walking the halls of Fort High who would be positive additions to the football squad. But they’re choosing not to play football for a variety of reasons, and one can’t help but think the Muskies’ extended streak of futility is one of those reasons.
As a comparison, St. Paul’s has so many players on board, they have a varsity team in the ‘AA’ division and also a junior varsity team in the ‘A’ division that’s composed of an entirely different group.
By comparison, the Muskies are just happy to have enough bodies out at fall practice to construct a decent varsity team, and regularly dip into the talent well of the junior varsity squad to round out their roster during the season.
A move to the ‘A’ division shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but rather as another avenue for the football program to strengthen its foundation. It need not even be a permanent move.
The Muskies could spend two, possibly three, seasons playing teams more of their calibre, build a winning feeling into the program again, and perhaps inspire more students to not be so quick to look away from the gridiron to satisfy their sporting inclinations.
Then, if they deemed themselves ready, Fort Frances could make the move back into the ‘AA’ division and test their mettle against the big boys once again.
Again, let me stress that wins and losses shouldn’t be the measuring stick of a high school athletic program’s worth. But in the interests of keeping that program healthy and strong, steps should be taken to try and provide an enjoyable atmosphere for the players who participate in it, and to encourage others to take part in the experience as well.
That includes giving them a better chance at victory than what they currently face in the ‘AA’ division.
The longer the losing continues, the higher the risk will be that the program may fade into oblivion because enough students will stay away from the gridiron to cause there to be a dramatic roster shortage.
I’ve talked with Bob Swing on this issue, and he feels he has good reasons to stay the course.
He sees the newer and stronger emphasis on weight training and conditioning that will be implemented this offseason, with the assistance of national-level coach and current assistant coach Shane Beckett, as a major move in the right direction.
He’s been part of winless teams as both a player and coach that turned the tables not long after and became ultra-successful.
He sees promise in the fledgling Muskie “C” team, which will provide much needed experience at a younger age for future Muskies.
Most importantly, as long as he and his coaching staff and his players are in mutual agreement to maintain their present path, and they undoubtedly are right now, then more power to them.
They may ultimately prove me wrong, and for the sake of Muskie fans everywhere, I truly hope they do.
But one would think at this point that the thirst for winning again must be parching the throat of even the most die-hard Muskie backer.
• • •
The final tally on my baseball playoff picks is in, further reiterating the fact I should pursue a career in book-binding rather than book-making.
I did all right overall, calling four out of seven series right (including being right on the money with all three of my successful choices in the divisional series round).
But that achievement is balanced out by the fact that I picked the Florida Marlins to lose to the San Francisco Giants, then against my adopted Chicago Cubs, and then against the money-drenched New York Yankees.
Each time, Jack McKeon and his troops proved me wrong and showed that pitching, defence, and timely hitting can overcome home run legends, teams of destiny, and World Series ghosts.
Score one for the little guys.

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