The football season couldn’t start fast enough for the St. Albert High Skyhawks.
Friday’s exhibition against the host Stettler Wildcats sets the stage for Thursday’s anticipated metro Edmonton league opener against the Miles conference division two champion McNally Tigers. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at Clarke Park.
“I think I can speak for everyone when I say we’re all really excited for the season,” said Danny Johnson, a Grade 11 running back and inside linebacker, prior to Wednesday’s practice at St. Albert Catholic High School. “We’re looking good out here. We’re getting stuff done and working hard and I think we’re all ready to go out and play hard.”
Last year the Skyhawks struggled through a 1-3 start, including two shutout losses, before catching lightning in a bottle to finish 6-5 as the Miles and Tier III (school population 450 to 749) provincial north finalists.
The Skyhawks placed third in league play with a .500 record and their late-game heroics in come-from-behind playoff victories by one point against the Strathcona Lords and two points against the St. Francis Xavier Rams resulted in the team’s first metro final since 2012 in the Carr conference before the merger of the metro and Edmonton public leagues.
The 25-8 loss against undefeated McNally in the Miles final also ended a four-game winning streak, the longest for the Skyhawks since their 9-4 campaign 2012.
The hiccup didn’t stop the Skyhawks from building on their playoff momentum and in provincial playdowns the No. 7-ranked Tier III team pulled off a startling 41-35 victory with a late surge in Peace River against the No. 9-ranked Pioneers in the north semifinals.
However, there were no more miracles for the comeback kids as the No. 2-ranked Holy Rosary Raiders, winners of back-to-back Wheatland Football League titles, grounded the Skyhawks 28-0 in the north final in Lloydminster.
It was the third north final in four provincial playoff appearances for the Skyhawks as the metro reps in their five-year history as a Tier III team.
“At the beginning we didn’t do so well and going further into the season we started to gel more as a team and that’s when we started to actually get some points on the board and win some games. We eventually gelled enough to make it to the final and into provincials,” Johnson said. “If we can maybe start off with a win here then we’ll probably gel pretty quick but we always want to get gelled as quickly as we can so we can start progressing to get better.”
The only Tier III team in the Miles the last two years has embraced its underdog role with open arms.
“We always say that a lot of schools underestimate us because we’re a really small school and a small team so that just makes us want to fight harder for the win because we don’t want to be underestimated. We’re going show them what’s up,” Johnson said.
The Skyhawks graduated several quality players, including slotback/cornerback Anthony Borelli, the team’s nominee for the Haliburton Trophy as the Miles MVP, speedy wideout Bryan Breda, lineback/slotback Brady Gonek and Brendan Gervais, who shone on both sides of the ball in his first season of football.
“We’ve got a lot of good quality players returning but it’s not just those big senior players that are going to make the team, it’s going to be everyone working as one individual unit that’s going to really make us or break us this year,” Johnson said.
Among the returnees is Grade 12 quarterback Sam Cuciz, who also lines up at safety. Cuciz was 41-for-67 passing for 418 yards and four touchdowns without throwing a pick in the Miles regular season.
“He really leads the offence but still it’s really going to be a huge team effort here,” said Johnson.
The bantam graduate of the St. Albert Fury, the undefeated 2014 Capital District Minor Football Association Tier III champions, carried the ball 21 times for 125 yards, the second-highest total on the team behind Gervais’ 238 yards on 37 handoffs, and caught six passes for 45 yards. Johnson also scored one TD and was credited with 12 tackles in his high school debut.
“I hope to make some big runs for the team, make some big tackles on defence and really just kind of help the team propel to a winning season,” said Johnson, 16.