Muskie footballers ready to rumber

It’s been quite the off-season for football’s Fort High Muskies.
Since their heartbreaking loss to Kenora in last November’s NorWOSSA final, the Muskies have moved leagues and are now on the eve of their first season with the Winnipeg High School Football League (WHSFL).
But through it all, ‘A’ head coach Bob Swing said the process of his players becoming students–and fans–of the game remains.
“We haven’t had that kind of fun [at practice] in years. It’s a whole new thing,” said Swing, who spent the majority of the summer scouting the league, watching video and meeting with his Winnipeg counterparts.
“Everyone is reinvigorated. It’s just fun and it’s easy to lose sight of that,” he added.
When the announcement of the move was made public in June, Swing declared the three-team NorWOSSA teams were, “sick of beating each other up.” Now he sees a spot in the WHSFL as just another challenge the team will face.
“It helps. It’s better for everyone involved. It’s better for players, and better for coaches,” he said. “If you’re any sort of an athlete that wants to play football, you have to be looking to build it up.”
Last year, the Muskies went 7-4 in exhibition and league play, including the finals loss here. But a strong crop of last year’s OAC students, including offensive threats receivers Jamie Booth and Mark Mercure and starting quarterback Gary Wager, have left, and in their place younger players Kyle McTavish and Andrew George.
Swing said replacing players is part of the high school football system, making the interaction between senior and junior student invaluable.
“We’ve replaced the players who’ve left. I just believe knowing we feel comfortable with them. We won’t know until things get going but I feel confident in our coaching staff,” he remarked.
Such is the case with George. He started one game as a grade nine student last season but was mainly Wager’s understudy. The 15-year old has played football for six years with an International Falls league team and the ‘B’ squad here.
“I’m just excited to be starting a full year this year,” he said. “Gary had a strong arm and always worked hard on improving. He helped me out all last year.”
OAC students Scott Wither-spoon and Jock Gemmell will return in to run the backfield.
Wide receiver and kicker Adam McTavish was ready to join Booth, Mecure and Wager in post-secondary education land but will come back to hit the high school classroom and suit up–one more time. He’ll join younger brother Kyle and Kevin Gemmell on the outside.
Offensive co-ordinator Dean Bruyere said their entry into the WHSFL, where defences throw eight players on the line of scrimmage, will put the emphasis on their passing game.
“We’ve got Adam McTavish back and he’ll be our biggest threat. These guys can catch the ball and Andrew has a really a good arm,” he noted. “Traditionally, we’ve always like to run the ball more but we’re going to rely on our passing game. A balanced attack, because I don’t think we’ll be able to run through the middle as we did against Dryden and Kenora,” mentioned Bruyere.
However, Swing said he doesn’t want to mix things up too much until they get a better feel during games.
“We know every week is going to be tough,” he remarked. “You don’t worry what the other team does so we’re not concerned about making adjustments until we’re completely satisfied with our game.”
The Muskies are not complete strangers to Winnipeg teams. They’ve regularly played exhibition games over the last few seasons. They’ve even defeated the St. Paul’s Crusaders and the Oak Park Raiders, the 1999 and 2000 champions, respectively.
McTavish agreed with Swing, adding the difference in player size shouldn’t intimidate the team.
“We’ve always played bigger teams. We should do all right. We’ve done well against Kenora and Dryden who have always been bigger than us. We’re quick and as long as we remember our fundamentals we should be fine,” he said.
The offensive line protecting George and scorers will include Shane McDonald, Nathan Baird, Richard Allen, Andy Wiersema, and Ryan Sedgewick.
“It’s really premature to tell [how the line will handle opponents],” said Bruyere. “[Monday was the] first time we’ve done complete scrimmaging. The O-line is smaller but quicker. We’ve got the guys to handle them.”
Defensively, the Muskies will look to linebackers Dan Poper-echny and Jock Gemmell and cornerback Verne Pham to lead a young core. Defensive co-ordinator Bob Whitburn said the WHSFL teams like to use their size and run and stressed they want to stop offenses from running the same plays.
“We haven’t changed the look of the defense,” said Whitburn. “We’ve just simplified a lot of things because we have younger team. So there’s a little more guess work for the offense. We’ve changed it up so they’re not going to the same place. We’ve kept it simple.”
After taking last season off, Whitburn admitted he’s just as excited as his players.
“I’m looking forward to it. The kids are looking forward to it. I’m enjoying being back. The attitudes are great. I’m looking forward to having more and better competition,” he enthused.
Bruyere preferred to take a less optimistic view of how the season will start, but is looking forward to seeing how it ends.
“I don’t really know what the mood is. We’re all apprehensive because of what’s coming in this year. You’re always fearful of the unknown,” he said. “The fortunate thing is that everyone makes the playoffs, we have time to make our adjustments.”
The team’s first exhibition game is this Friday against the International Falls Broncos at 7 p.m. at Bronco Stadium. Their first league game is Sept. 7. against the Kelvin Clippers at Muskie Field.