The future is now for the St. Albert High Skyhawks.
The only Tier III metro Edmonton football team in the division two Miles conference welcomes several top-notch newcomers to a lineup of experienced returnees from last year’s north finalist in the provincial playdowns.
“We’re very excited for the season. We have a lot of new talent coming up and a few key players that we were missing,” said Christian Pulis, a swift-footed Grade 12 running back. “It’s going to be a good season. We’re going to have a lot of fun. I can feel it.”
Last year’s Skyhawks finished 4-6 overall as injuries crippled the team late in the season.
“We worked pretty hard but a lot of injuries is what really held us back from our true potential,” Pulis said. “This year if we can keep injury free we’ll go farther.”
The fourth north final in six years for the Skyhawks was also the second shutout loss in two years to the Holy Rosary Raiders of Lloydminster with a trip to the Tier III (450 to 749 students) Alberta Bowl on the line.
“Our kids learned a lot. It was a tough season at the end with Holy Rosary really handing it to us in the northern final,” said head coach Sam Johnson of the 61-0 rout at Clarke Stadium as the Raiders racked up 28 points in the first quarter and led by 46 at halftime.
“People don’t realize we had eight starters out (including quarterback Sam Cuciz) and with a small program when you have even one or two starters out it’s tough to replace those kids,” Johnson added. “But everybody on that team last year, the kids that graduated and the kids that came back, it was a big lesson for them. They had big hearts because they never stopped fighting and that’s only going to bode well for us this year. It’s kind of like what the Oilers did in the playoffs. It’s going to help them in the playoffs this year. The kids get bigger and stronger and learn a little bit more so that’s why we’re very, very excited.”
League play in the Miles is a dress rehearsal for provincials, starting with the north semifinal against the Tier III qualifier in the Mighty Peace League.
“We don’t look that far ahead,” Johnson said. “Our goal has always been a provincial championship, our ultimate team goal if that is what people are looking for, but we’re in it to win every game and we want to make sure we show up and get better every week.”
This year the Miles has expanded from a single division of seven teams with the formation of two pools of five teams each and they also play two games against teams in the other pool that will count in the standings. The top four teams in both pools make the playoffs.
“We just want to make sure that we get into the playoffs so if you win a couple you’re almost assured you get in,” Johnson said.
The Skyhawks are slotted in pool A with the Ardrossan Bisons, O’Leary Spartans, Eastglen Blue Devils and, surprisingly, the Paul Kane Blues.
The pool B opponents are the Archbishop Jordan Scots and Leduc Tigers.
“We’re going to play every game with the same intensity as we did last year and we’re going to win more this year,” Pulis said of last year’s Miles’ semifinalists after placing sixth with two wins and four losses in the regular season.
Paul Kane’s return to Miles after a two-year stint in the division one Carr conference following back-to-back undefeated Miles championships sets the stage for the Battle of Alberta on Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. at Riel Recreation Park.
The last two cross-town battles between the former comrades in arms with the St. Albert Catholic High School football program were crushing losses of 78-14 in 2013 and 56-0 in 2014 for the Skyhawks.
Last year the Blues, the 2015 Carr finalists, finished 1-7-1 as the Tier II north semifinalists and are one of two Tier II (750 to 1,249) teams in the Carr and Miles as the metro reps for provincials.
The move by the Blues under head coach Rob Strecker, as well as scrapping their junior team that was in place since Paul Kane’s inaugural 2011 season, leaves the Bellerose Bulldogs as the only St. Albert high school with a junior team to complement their senior team in Carr.
A lack of bodies forced the Skyhawks drop their junior team in 2014.
The back-tracking of the Blues into Miles has been the talk of the St. Albert football community especially after Paul Kane felt confident enough it could field a senior and junior team instead of serving as a feeder school for the Skyhawks’ football program.
Johnson defended Paul Kane’s decision to switch conferences.
“Rob is a good coach, I’ve always said that, and he’s got to do what he feels is best for his program,” Johnson said. “I know it was a tough pill for us to swallow when we came down (to Miles in 2013 after reaching the Carr final and Tier III Alberta Bowl final the year before), albeit we’re a little smaller than they are, but I hope people don’t see it as a sign of weakness because it’s not that at all. You just want to be where you need to be to be competitive.”
Johnson expects the Skyhawks will be in the thick of things with a roster fortified by several graduating bantams that include quarterback Owen Vanderheide and defensive back Jackson Ganton from the first-place Alberta team at Football Canada U16 Western Challenge in July at Lethbridge.
Vanderheide was the team and playoff MVP of the 2016 Sherwood Park Rams, the Tier 1 provincial champions, and at the 2017 Football Alberta Bantam Bowl was selected as the north team’s most outstanding player.
Ganton, who will be joined by a number of bantam St. Albert 49ers’ teammates in making the jump to the Skyhawks, also huddled up at the Bantam Bowl and is among 19 Albertans named to the Western Canada U16 all-star team that will represent Canada against Team USA at the 2018 International Bowl in January in Texas.
“They’re exceptional football players but they’re even better kids,” Johnson said, “And then you get a kid like Ryan Kilborn who played in minor (football) here. He came up and played for us in the spring and playing in one of the more tougher positions at centre and never missed a gall darn snap.
“These kids that come in, nothing against the newer kids that come out, but now we’re at kind of a level with these kids that we don’t have to teach them how to put on their shoulder pads and make sure their helmet is snapped up. We can get right into more technical stuff. Yesterday (Tuesday) was our first practice of the main camp and we’ve already got a whole series of our offence put in because those kids understand what’s going on and they understand what we need.
“We’ve also got some great guys returning like Christian Pulis, who is going to be a beast, and DeAmonte Overman, who is known more for his basketball but is a fine wide receiver.
“We’re going to be very, very tough to handle.”
Pulis, 17, a dangerous runner with slick moves, was a 2016 conference all-star in Miles along with a pair of graduating Skyhawks, Cuciz and receiver Connor Lotoski.
“I had a lot of good coaching last season and really good teammates and a lot of experienced players to help me out and now that I’m one of the more experienced players on this team I want to be more of a leader out there and I want to be a bigger threat,” said Pulis, a third-year Skyhawk who never played a down of football until moving from Hinton to attend Grade 10 at St. Albert High.
The league opener is Sept. 14 against the Bisons at 5 p.m. in Ardrossan.