By Mitch Calvert
After starting the season with two wins in their first four games, the Muskie football team fell off the rails, losing their final four games—culminating with a decisive 38-5 setback in their quarter-final match to Garden City on Friday.
Oh, what could have been.
Physically speaking, this year’s edition of the Muskies had strong, talented players at key positions that, in theory, should have been able to compete with anybody in the Kas Vidruk Division. But something wasn’t quite right.
Maybe it’s because the program has developed a losing tradition over the years, and that familiarity with losing has bred more losing—no matter who takes the field.
But to say they gave it 100 percent and just weren’t good enough is a cop out. There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect between the coaching staff and some of the players, and from an outsider’s perspective, it seemed to fester into a problem as the season wore on.
In the right environment, this team truly could have been better than how they finished, but some combination of forces prevented them from reaching that potential.
Part of the problem could be the lack of football development prospects locally for kids growing up. They are expected to learn the fundamentals and become top-level players all during their high school years, given there’s no minor football program like kids playing hockey here have.
There is talk of starting a junior football program, aimed at developing potential players in a team atmosphere prior to them joining the high school squad, and that surely would go a long way towards fostering skills and confidence.
The program still is in its infancy, but Dean Bruyere hopes to spearhead it.
“It will mainly focus on Grade 7 and 8 students, but if there are a few Grade 6 kids who are big enough and strong enough, we will take them along for the ride,” Bruyere said.
“Bob Whitburn and I ran [a junior program] for a few years, but the wheels kind of fell off the cart three years ago for a number of reasons I’d rather not get into,” he added. “We had a pretty good little team, scheduled games against Grade 7 and 8 teams from the U.S., and we even scheduled some games against Thunder Bay.
“That first year we took a lot of lumps playing Grade 7 and 8s and some 9s with just Grade 6 and 7s, but as it went along, the third and final year we ended up beating Kenora’s Grade 9 and 10 team.”
Back in 2001, the Muskies were 4-4 in the top tier of the WHSFL but have declined steadily since, finishing this past regular season at 2-5 in Tier II.
“You need the junior program in place to have any chance to compete at the next level,” Bruyere stressed. “We have a system in place, I know what Andrew [George] runs, and we could have that same system all the way from the junior program on up.
“Same play calls and everything, so you don’t have to teach a kid how to go in a three-point stance in Grade 10, but can instead focus on execution and timing, and then you can get fancy and put new plays in.”
But for many kids, football isn’t their meal ticket and the sport has trouble recruiting players because it inevitably takes a back seat to others like hockey.
“If you make a couple passes through the elementary schools and bring a little DVD with some football film on it, and bring a couple kids to come and talk about their experience, the young ones look up to that sort of thing,” Bruyere reasoned. “If that kid is a Muskie hockey player, then even better. You can do both.”
Coach George echoed Bruyere’s desires to recruit more players to the Muskie program. “I want to start an alumni group, aimed at getting bursaries for every kid that plays to go towards their post-secondary schooling,” he remarked.
“We need to be able to recruit players because that’s the biggest downfall we have right now,” George added. “We’re competing against hockey technically, and I think parents would push their kids to play [football] if it meant having some money afterwards for their schooling.”
For some players, perhaps just the novelty of being on the team, and the time away from class that comes with it, are enough to keep them on the squad even when their heart may not be in it.
But to lump all the players into that category is entirely unfair. You could tell a good many of them busted their collective butts on the field each game—and football isn’t exactly a sport where you can shy away from physical contact and not get noticed.
The coaches no doubt committed a lot of extra hours to trying to prepare the team as best they could, but that magic formula and winning chemistry never materialized.
Certainly head coach Vince Gouin was bang-on in using the cliché, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” to describe his two seasons at the helm, and baby steps were made from this season compared to last, but at some point the next step needs to be taken—yet there seems to be something holding back the Muskie football program from doing just that.
By Mitch Calvert