Skyhawks rebuild in Miles
Last year's juggernaut high school football team switched conferences in revamped metro Edmonton league
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 04, 2013 03:15 pm
One of the greatest football teams ever assembled in St. Albert is rebuilding in the reconstructed metro Edmonton high school league.
The St. Albert Skyhawks, last year’s Carr conference finalists and Tier III provincial silver medallists, will regroup in the Miles conference after graduating 24 players.
“We had a very good team last year. Everybody knows that. It was really one of the best since maybe 2000 (when the Skyhawks won the Carr final). So rebuilding? I guess you could use that term, but don't take us lightly,” stressed Sam Johnson, head coach of the first St. Albert team to play in an Alberta Bowl final since the 1997 Tier I Storm.
The Skyhawks became a Tier III (750 to 749 students) provincial threat in 2011, when Paul Kane High School formed its own football program after allowing its athletes to huddle up at St. Albert Catholic High School.
“Do we want to win every game and win the conference? Absolutely, but our ultimate goal is to be a provincial champion,” Johnson said.
The Skyhawks, the only Tier III team in the Carr last year, have shifted over to the metro's designated division two Miles, consisting of the Ardrossan Bisons, O'Leary Spartans and Paul Kane Blues from the Carr, the defending Miles champion Leduc Tigers and the McNally Tigers, W.P. Wagner Warriors and Strathcona Lords from the Edmonton public league that merged with the metro league.
“We’re going into uncharted waters now with the Edmonton public thing,” said Johnson of the 9-4 Skyhawks that lost three games to Tier I (1,250-plus students) teams last year. “We’re not in the Miles because we feel we’re a weaker team. We’re in the Miles because if we don't need to play those monster schools – the Belleroses, the Harry Ainlays – we don't want to play them. The problem a small school has that a big school doesn't is depth. I will put our starters up against anybody in the province. I really will, but that backup, if somebody gets hurt or gets banged up, that next guy you put in is maybe not at the level that a big school would have as a backup.”
The new-look Skyhawks make their Miles debut today against Leduc at 5 p.m. at Johnny Bright Park.
“Leduc is always going to be tough,” Johnson said of last year’s 6-0 Tigers. “With the alignments now, I don't think there is ever going to be an easy game anymore. Those Edmonton public teams are solid but they were getting beat by the big schools. Heck we were solid and we were getting beat by the big schools. Now we don't have that proverbial monkey on our back. All the games are going to be close.”
John Brouse, a Grade 11 linebacker who played for Team Alberta at the U18 Football Canada Cup, is pumped for the Miles season to kick off.
“We’re definitely a different team than last year but I think we’ll live up to expectations. We have a real good team,” Brouse said. “It will be a different level of teams than last year. In the Carr they’re always the top notch schools and this (Miles) is kind of like the lower down tier.”
How the Skyhawks do Oct. 10 against Ardrossan, last year’s Tier IV (449 or less students) provincial finalist who is expecting an enrolment surge that will bump it up into Tier III, will somewhat play a role as to which metro team goes to the north semifinal against the Mighty Peace rep. If both teams make the Miles playoffs, who ever goes the farthest gets the berth.
“We have a good shot at provincials this year, but we focus on the league first and then provincials,” said Brouse, one of six linebackers on the provincial team that finished 2-1 as silver medallists at U18 nationals. “It was very good learning from a whole different group of guys at a higher level and higher level coaches too.”
Johnson is also optimistic with the talent he has to work with even though the Skyhawks’ junior program is 1-13, dating back to the 2010 regular season.
“We’ve still got arguably one of the best players in the province in Keith Zyla at quarterback. We’ve got Johnny Brouse who made Team Alberta as a Grade 10. Logan Tait-Vanderheide and Rory O’Donovan were solid players as Grade 10s. John Pysyk and Mitch Stykalo that are coming up from the junior team last year are very, very good. Jay Stoneham is, no pun intended, a rock. He is a big guy.
“The kids that we have coming in I know are going to play hard. They’re good players.”
Brouse, 15, shares his coach's confidence.
“Our offence and defence are both really strong and we have an amazing quarterback,” said Brouse, who will assume a bigger defensive role this year after registering 19 tackles in league play as primarily a backup. “It feels good to be a leader on the team now and know what you’re doing. You’re stepping up for the rest of the team and showing an example.”
Ultimately the Skyhawks will only go as far as Zyla will take them. The third-year starting quarterback, who also punts and is a hard-hitting safety, was the team's Haliburton Trophy nominee as the Carr’s most valuable player. The former Cooper City (Fla.) Cowboy was 47-for-85 passing for 723 yards and 13 touchdowns and four interceptions in league play. He ranked fifth in rushing with a team-high 603 yards on 36 carries for six TDs. The top punter in the Carr racked up 1,529 yards on 41 kicks. He was second on the team in tackles with 27.
Zyla also set Tier III provincial records of three TD passes and 258 yards, while going 23-for-42 with two picks in the 31-20 loss to the Cochrane Cobras in the Alberta Bowl. He also gained 71 yards on seven carries. Overall the Skyhawks were credited with only 73 yards on 11 carries.
Last year the Skyhawks’ offence revolved around Zyla passing or running the ball and the last option was handing the rock off.
“That's the offence we’ve implemented and we’re staying with the gun read, where the ball is in our quarterback's hands and that's Keith, who happens to be one of the best players around. The offence depicts what he reads. If he is running it or throwing it or somebody else is running it, it doesn't matter as long as we’re moving the ball and scoring points and that’s the big thing,” Johnson said. “The way we’re going to be successful is to limit the number of minutes our defence plays by keeping the ball on offence and the kids are finally starting to really fully understand what we’re trying to accomplish. The offensive line is communicating and we’re making their blocks as easy as possible. Hopefully things work out for us.”