CANMORE – Coming off the best season in Canmore Wolverines history, the provincial champions already have a goal in mind for 2019. Repeat.
The high school football team returns to the gridiron in the season opener, Thursday (Aug. 29) at 5 p.m. at Canmore’s Millennium Field against the Ardrossan Bisons.
As winners of the Tier IV provincial title, coaches and players alike are eyeing an early win under their belts to start off the season while trying to avoid any grogginess of a championship hangover.
“As with any championship team, there can be a complacency factor once you’ve been to the mountain top,” said Wolverines head coach, Spencer Rose. “It’s been nice; I haven’t seen a lot of that from these guys this year - they seem hungry again - but that would be the major concern is that there’ll be that potential hangover from winning a big championship.”
With only a handful of practices in August, there’s no time to waste for the Wolverines and the new season with a big test straight out of the gates.
“This is a really good game to test our boys and test where we’ll be at for the season,” said Grade 12 player, Sam Birch. “We definitely have room to improve, definitely have room to reflect on last year and what we can do better and what would help us this year.”
Rose said the Bisons are “one of the better programs up in the north”, going undefeated last season before being unceremoniously eliminated in the playoffs first round.
Rose added the Bisons aggressive defensive style is going to test the Wolverines offensive line and quarterback.
“I’m expecting a good team; they’re well coached, they’ve made several runs to the provincial finals and they’ve won it a couple of times, so I’m expecting it to be a good game and a solid opponent,” Rose said.
“Coach Spence”, as some senior players refer to him, took over as sideline boss this summer following the departure of Wade Buckley, who served as head coach the past four years. Buckley, one of Football Alberta’s coaches of the year in 2018, relocated to Minnesota with is wife, which opened up the opportunity for the former Wolverines player to take the reins of the high school program.
“I’m expecting to repeat our success (from 2018),“ said Rose, who previously served as the Wolverines defensive coordinator. “I’m expecting to have a hard working team and I would like to match last years result.”
Looking at the 2019 roster, the Wolverines have experience and a core of returning players from 2018 to help the drive to the playoffs and beyond. One thing Rose emphasized is the football IQ that many players possess.
“I think the big thing with all the returning guys is there’s going to be quite a bit of continuity,” Rose said, who estimates 10-15 players to return. “The leadership is going to be very good, so the new guys who are here it’ll be easier to pick up the system because we have a lot of good veteran leaders.”
There’s keenness surrounding the Wolverines offence this season, which is mixed veteran experience, strength and length.
The arm and mind behind the ball is Ian Chartrand, who spent last year backing up Elliot Jantz.
“He’s in Grade 11 and we’re pretty excited for him,” Rose said. “He’s had a year in the system and I think he spent the summer in the playbook as well so I’m excited to see how he leads the offence and just the command of the offence.”
Also returning is the team’s main running back and senior player, Albert Reed. Last year the team could rely on Reed to gut out a few yards or carrying the ball and kill the clock in crucial playoff games.
Rose added the wide receivers are speedy and lengthy; while the slotback positions are filled with toughness and resilience.
On defence, which is Rose’s specialty, he believes the Wolverines are looking strong on all three levels. The defensive unit has “a lot of speed and a lot of athletes” and intelligence of the game to give opposing quarterbacks fits.
However, the only pitfall Rose can point out is some of the teens still have to fill out their bodies.
“Where we could run into a little bit of trouble is right now we’re a little bit lean … there’s not a ton of size, but they’re strong and athletic and a lot have been in the film already,” he said.
The 2018 Wolverines' special teams brought magic to the field with big returns and kicking, so coaches are hoping that turns over to this season.
With multiple kickers on the squad and game planning around it, the Wolverines embrace of the specials has one of its strengths on the field.
“That was a major contributor factor to our success last year,” Rose said. “One of the major contributing factors was effort and people wanting to be there … that’s a good way to take advantage of a team. Some other teams might just focus on offence and defence and special teams is kind of the other piece of the game, but we love our specials here.”
The historic 2018 season for the champion Wolverines included many franchise firsts that complimented provincial-level success such as winning back-to-back Big Sky League titles, winning the franchise’s first playoff game and capturing the south provincial title.
Early in October 2018, the notoriously slow starting team hit rock bottom after a tough loss to the Drumheller Titans, dropping its record to 2-3 with things looking grim.
The Wolverines were in a tough position for the remainder of the season, fighting to have a pulse in the playoffs.
In dominant fashion, the Wolverines pulled it off and faced the Titans as the underdogs in the Big Sky League title match – the final game before playoffs.
The Wolverines showed up on the gridiron and had an inclusive effort from its defence, offence and special teams to shut out the Titans, 10-0, becoming back-to-back Big Sky champs for the first time.
When it counted the most, the Wolverines played its best football.
Up next for the club was an elusive playoff win that had haunted past teams, and making the playoffs this season almost seemed good enough for the team that was 2-3 a month prior.
The Wolverines broke the playoff curse and crushed the Willow Creek Cobras to advance to the southern Alberta provincial finals.
They met the best Tier IV team in Alberta, the W.R. Myers Rebels, and shocked them in a tense 21-20 game that came down to the final minute of the fourth quarter.
The dream season wasn’t over yet though for the soaring with confidence Wolverines, who travelled to Fort McMurray to play against the St. Paul Lions in the provincial finals.
The Wolverines, for the first time in a long time, were heavy favourites entering a game and they played like it, too. In snowy conditions and under the bright lights, the Wolverines steamrolled the Lions, 24-10, to win it all.
After the dust settled, Buckley won one of Football Alberta’s coaches of the year awards.