Twenty years ago, the St. Albert Storm defined greatness during a compelling season of gridiron glory.
One of most prolific high school football teams in St. Albert history was a dominating force while going 9-1 as the Carr conference champions in the metro Edmonton league and Tier I provincial finalists.
The legendary status of the 1997 Storm, a lethal combination of lightning and thunder on both sides of the ball, was achieved with a star-studded roster stacked with players committed to the cause as the proverbial band of brothers.
Led by the Silver Bullet, tailback extraordinaire Adrian Williams, 15-year-old southpaw quarterback Marc Kennedy and the Legion of Doom defence with James McConnell enforcing the law as the unit’s top cop, the Storm were too good to be true.
“We had a special group,” said McConnell, who wreaked havoc with Cory Snell as his tag-team partner at inside linebacker. “We just didn’t represent our school, we represented the community. We had an opportunity to be friends with guys from St. Albert High and Bellerose and myself from Paul Kane where we wouldn’t otherwise be friends with them.
“It was a very positive experience and the way that coaching staff and the way the players rallied around each other just set a tone for what it takes to be not only competitive and good at what you do but also just be a good person. That staff emphasized being a good teammate, taking care of things that mattered like your school work so you can be a good football player on game day,” McConnell added of the Storm’s father figures. “They were great role models teaching players how to not only be good athletes but good people.”
The blasts from the past will huddle up Friday for the team’s 20-year reunion with around 30 players and coaches confirmed for the Storm shaker. The oldies but goodies will be honoured during a halftime ceremony at the Bellerose Bulldogs versus Bev Facey Falcons game at, fittingly enough, Larry Olexiuk Field as Olexiuk was the Storm’s beloved offensive coordinator and is on the Bellerose coaching staff.
Afterwards, the Storm will gather at the Beer Factory for lots of lies, laughter and liquid refreshments.
“It sounds like a lot of fun to get some good memories going on,” Williams said. “For the most part I have not seen too many of them since high school.”
McConnell agreed. “For a number of players it will be at least 20 years since they’ve seen each other so it’s going to be a great time. I’ve been thinking about it a ton. It’s kind of been a nice trip down memory lane for sure.”
Bob Brayman, the Storm’s field general, is motoring in from Kelowna for the big event.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the guys. You can’t miss these kinds of things,” said the Storm’s inaugural head coach in 1986. “We were very fortunate to coach such a good bunch of guys.”
So why were the Storm so uber fantastic?
“When you look at that team, part of the thing that made it special was the practice atmosphere created by Bob Brayman, Larry Olexiuk, Steve Klein and Terry Shuttleworth, all the coaches,” McConnell said. “We competed against each other but it was never in a negative way. The coaches kind of embellished competition but in a healthy way.
“We also had a head coach in Bob Brayman that wasn’t a coordinator. This allowed him to let the coordinators coach and for Bob to really get the pulse of the team and get us focused and motivated.”
Brayman listed three strengths the Storm possessed.
“Leadership, not only from Marc Kennedy, but from guys like James Ammar, Cory Snell, Adrian, Dan Duke, James McConnell and others.
“Team speed. It was probably the fastest team that we had had all around. Our offensive line was pretty quick.
“And just how well they hung together as a team.”
But was the 1997 Storm on par with the 1990 and 1992 teams that also won Carr banners and lost in the Tier I provincial finals?
“It’s up there. We had probably the best running back, and we’ve had some good running backs over the years, but the best running back we ever had in terms of speed and power,” Brayman said of the elusive Williams who was faster than greased lightning. “It’s hard to equate them because you play different teams but I would say it’s one or two.”
Williams was unquestionably the dude with 10 rushing touchdowns and five TD catches before the Raymond Comets burst the Storm’s bubble 39-0 in the Tier I final at Coronation Field.
“Why was I able to do so well? First off I had a good group of guys out there blocking for me. There were a lot of good athletes on that team and they did help and that helps with everything when you have a good line and a good quarterback and good receivers to get down the field and that kind of opened things up for me being in the backfield,” said Williams, the Storm’s nominee for the Haliburton MVP award in the Carr. “It was my last year of high school (at Bellerose) and I was pretty motivated. I had trained quite a bit with track and field and that got my legs underneath me and that helped a lot too.”
Williams and Ferris at fullback were the last players remaining from the Storm’s 1995 Miles conference championship team on the 1997 squad.
“I just remember having a lot of fun with those guys,” said Williams, 37, who received a scholarship from Idaho University and works for Purolator in Edmonton. “I remember the defence playing pretty great and making big stops at the end of the year. I also remember catching some passes from Kennedy. They had started using me as a wide receiver just to change things a little bit to put me out wide. I caught two touchdowns against Parkland (of 40 and nine yards in the 24-7 win in the Tier I north final) and I definitely remember that.”
Defensively, the Storm put the hammer down with the likes of Andy Schurek at safety, nose tackle McKerry Dobbins, defensive end Eric Manchakowsky, outside linebacker Scott Thomas, corner Craig Offin, defensive back Terry Dabbagh and linemen Christian Mandin and Dan Taggart among the cast of hard-nose characters.
“We were lucky on defence because we played against the best offence in the league in practice so games in some cases were easy. Catching Adrian Williams was not easy in practice and neither was trying to tackle Dave Ferris and Dan Duke. It makes those other running backs look pretty pedestrian,” said McConnell, the 2001 recipient of the Larry Wruck Defensive Player of the Year Award in the Canadian Junior Football League with the Edmonton Huskies.
The Storm pitched four shutouts in nine games and allowed only 45 points, including 30 in four playoff matches in the Carr and Tier I provincials, before the crushing loss to the Comets.
“Defensively, we just had a ton of good athletes. We just lined up and played football,” said McConnell, who played two seasons for the Alberta Golden Bears after five years with the Huskies.
So, what happened against Comets?
“They were very talented but I think we were maybe just as talented and they had a better day,” said McConnell, 37, an RCMP officer based in Calgary.
The Comets finished 12-1 overall that year with several prime-time players, including Darryl Salmon at quarterback, running back Bryce Coppieters and the famous Ralph brothers, Brock and Brett.
“We had a lot of talent and that’s why I had a great deal of respect for that Raymond team. They handed it to us. We were dinged up a little but they probably were too. It was probably the best team we’ve ever faced and as good as LCI was those previous years in (the Tier I finals in) 1992 (24-0 loss) and 1990 (42-0 loss),” Brayman said. “There wasn’t a guy who looked overweight on that team. They had tremendous team speed, plus the Ralph brothers and Salmon at quarterback.
“We had them scouted. We had film from the guys at Ross Shep, they had been down there and loaned us some stuff, so we knew what they were going to have and they were amazing. I can still see Marc Kennedy dropping back to pass and you have a linebacker in his face right away,” said Brayman, noting how Kennedy was sacked for a nine-yard loss on the team’s first offensive play and it went downhill from there.
The loss was tough, especially for the 24 returning players from the 1996 Storm that suffered a demoralizing setback to the Salisbury Sabres in the Carr final, 34-14, as well as the 24-14 playoff upset by the Grande Prairie Warriors in the snow, plus very iffy officiating as well in that contest, during the provincial playoffs in Grande Prairie as the Storm finished a bittersweet 7-2.
“A lot of that core on the (1997) team either started in ’96 or were backups in Æ96 and for the ’97 group we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulders that we wanted to prove to the league and province that we were the best football program in Alberta,” McConnell said. “We were a good team in ’97, there is no doubt about it.”