It was an impassioned plea for action from a coach whose team may not see any action if circumstances don’t change.
New Muskie football head coach Mike Cuzzolino started last Thursday’s training camp practice off with only 24 players present—just enough to fill each position on offence and defence with no substitutes.
Hardly ideal in a sport where the focus every play is to physically dominate one’s opponent.
That led to Cuzzolino delivering an ultimatum to those on hand that they need to step up their efforts to get fellow students to join the team.
“Nobody in there respects this team,” the coach told his squad while pointing in the direction of Fort High.
“Just tell your buddies to come out and give it a try,” he added.
“I don’t know anyone who didn’t try this sport that didn’t end up loving it.”
Without more bodies to suit up, Cuzzolino made it clear the Muskies face the real possibility of not making its WHSFL season-opening trip to Brandon tomorrow to face the Neelin Spartans.
And, should the present situation remain unchanged, perhaps not see the field in competition at all.
“The low numbers are really demoralizing,” said Cuzzolino, who estimated he was missing seven-10 prospective players for various reasons that he was expecting to be at training camp.
“It’s really disappointing that the kids in the school don’t care to try and make this program great again,” he added.
“I coached a lot of hockey players for the Muskie boys’ team that could really make a difference on this football team, but don’t want to play because they’re worried they will get hurt,” Cuzzolino noted.
“I wish I could have some of those players and I wish I had more kids that want to help turn this program around.
“I would say 28-30 [players] would be [the] bare minimum we need to go to Brandon,” he stressed.
Cuzzolino’s task has been made more complicated by the recent loss of players he was counting on as integral parts of his squad, including last year’s starting quarterback, punter, and part-time receiver and defensive back Ben Whitburn, who is moving to Alberta for the start of the new school year.
“You know what? Losing Ben hurts but not at the quarterback spot,” he remarked.
“Brandon Whitecrow has done an outstanding job and, in my eyes, won the job outright,” he said about the second-year pivot who saw minimal snaps behind centre last season.
“Where losing Ben hurts is his veteran leadership and at the slot/wideout spot, and on defence and special teams.
“I’m happy to move forward with Brandon and Matt Booth, two young kids that will help us,” said Cuzzolino, who stressed the lack of an experienced hand at quarterback doesn’t necessarily mean more of the offensive workload falling on the shoulders of running back Dougie deBernardeaux, who had a solid and at times spectacular rookie campaign last season.
“I don’t plan on putting any added pressure on Dougie,” noted Cuzzolino.
“I plan to try and be as balanced as I can, and feel really confident in Brandon’s ability to air it out.”
While Cuzzolino would love to have receivers the calibre of Calvin Johnson from his beloved Detroit Lions on the other end of Whitecrow’s throws, he is confident in their ability to help move the chains.
“We do have a mix of young and veteran [receivers],” he remarked.
“They’re eager to get out there and make plays, but they just really need to focus on running precise routes and catching the football first.
“I’d really like to see us throw the ball more and our receivers need to be really good at catching the ball,” he stressed.
The success of the Muskie offence will rely heavily on the big men up front, whose responsibility is to keep the pressure off of Whitecrow and open holes for deBernardeaux.
“Offensive line is going to be a focal point for us,” Cuzzolino confirmed.
“We can’t move the ball if the O-line can’t do their job.”
Defensively, Fort High will be hard-pressed to fill the cleats of departed seniors such as safety Braden Webb, the team’s MVP last season, along with defensive lineman Dallas Gervais and the entire starting group at linebacker.
“I expect some of our vets like [linebacker] Matt Cheetham, [defensive back] Matt Nowak, and [defensive back] Jacob Bolzan to step up and be real leaders on defence,” Cuzzolino said.
“I want them to bring these young kids up with positive encouragement and be teachers out there,” he noted.
“I also expect some more leadership from [defensive lineman] Kenton Bowles, as well,” Cuzzolino added.
“I think he’s got great potential and would love to see him be more vocal, as well as continue to lead by example.”
Cuzzolino, meanwhile, saluted the work of his fellow coaches in getting the linebackers prepared for the challenges of the upcoming season in the Andy Currie Division.
“Pete Moen, Monty Bolzan, and Jordy Botsford have done a great job getting these players up to speed and ready to go,” he lauded.
“I have the utmost confidence these boys will be ready come game day.”
On special teams, Whitburn’s exodus means place-kicker Cam Lidkea or newcomer Isaac Firth will take over the punting chores.
“Right now, it’s kind of an open competition,” said Cuzzolino, who plans to use a multi-player approach in regards to punt and kick-off returns.
“[Bolzan] will return punts and kicks, but I also would like to try younger guys at those spots, too, and groom them to take some returns,” he explained.
Cuzzolino also tipped his hat to former Muskie head coach Chad Canfield, who has lent his expertise to the new head coach.
“I couldn’t have got this offence started without his help,” Cuzzolino said to Canfield, who resigned after last season following a 3-4 regular season record and then a 35-0 quarter-final loss to the Elmwood Giants.
Despite the mountainous odds, Cuzzolino is adamant the Muskies don’t have any grace period when it comes to achieving success.
“Unfortunately, we’re building the program—again—but the worst thing is that to really build it, we need to win games” he reasoned.
“We start losing all our games and nobody will come out.
“We have a great core of young guys and we’re going to have to build through them and see where it takes us,” Cuzzolino added.
“We lack dedication and commitment on this team,” he stressed. “We haven’t had full attendance any day of training camp.”
Cuzzolino conceded it’s “really hard” to develop players and put new things in when you are missing so many players.
“It’ll be tough but this team has great coaches and I believe we’re up to the task,” he vowed.