Lightning are ready to strike
Perhaps the biggest enemy of a dynasty is complacency.
When it comes to high school football where there is a large turnover due to graduation from year to year, that danger is even higher.
It’s easy for incoming players to believe because the team was successful the year before, they will be successful again because of the nameplate on the front of the jersey.
It is this mentality that Hunting Hills Lightning head coach Kyle Sedgwick is fighting, with three Central Alberta High School Football League championships in the last four years, including the last two, and a large group of rookies on the team.
“You can’t just show up for a game, put pads on and think that’s that, we found that out the hard way last year against Lindsay Thurber,” he said. “Every year where you win some games, every team is going to give you that much better of an effort when you play them. Every team wants to knock you off and take your title away from you.”
Perhaps the Lightning’s biggest weapon against complacency is unfinished business. No Tier II team from Red Deer has captured a provincial title and it’s been since 1995 since a local team has played for one. Hunting Hills came close two years ago but fell in the South final.
Hunting Hills enters this year as the sixth ranked tier II team in the province, and there is no question what their goal is.
“We want to at least get to the tier II final and win it,” said Sedgwick. “It’s something we’re really trying to focus on. We’ve done a good job the last few years in putting our school’s name on the map province wide for football, now we want to make sure we can really have that opportunity.”
Last year they lost 15-10 to Foothills out of Okotoks in the first round of provincials, Foothills then lost in final.
They should have the horses to make a healthy run at their goal.
Defensively, they should be stout. Led by one of the league’s top defensive back units — including Linden Petersen and Matt Larsen — they are not going to give up a lot of big plays.
There are not a lot of weaknesses throughout the rest of their defence either, with a strong group on the line and an athletic group of linebackers, led by inside linebacker Connor Brace and outside linebackers Cole Layden and Dawson McCrady.
“Some teams base their linebackers on size, we base our linebackers on speed and our aggressiveness,” said the five-foot-11, 170-pound Brace. “We can get out in coverage and hit.”
The key will be to just do their individual jobs on defence and not overextend themselves.
“We just like to keep our systems simple, make sure our guys know their assignments and then get 12 guys to the ball,” said Sedgwick. “We’ve got some blitz packages in, but we basically just run three different coverages and a base front and bring some pressure off that ...
“We’re not always the biggest team, most years we’re kind of undersized compared to others, so we just rely on some athleticism and getting guys to the ball.”
Offensively, they could be explosive.
It will all start with senior quarterback Brett Barrett, 17, who has waited patiently for his opportunity to start with Hunting Hills. In Grade 10, he was behind league MVP Scott Pearson, while last year he was behind Jarrett Burzuk.
“It’s good to finally be the starter and not to worry about the guys in front of you,” said the six-foot-three, 175-pound pivot. “There’s a ton of pressure, it’s tough, but I’ve played with a lot of these guys with the Prairie Fire so I’ve had experience as a starting quarterback, just not here.”
Though he is a new starter with Hunting Hills, Sedgwick notes that Barrett has plenty of experience in minor football with the Prairie Fire.
“He’s been waiting two years for this, he knows the offence inside out, he’s got a big frame and he’s got good arm strength,” said Sedgwick. “He’s got the game experience, we just need him to play with confidence this year.”
Barrett will not be lacking for weapons, either. Their biggest strength on offence will be their corps of receivers with a solid mixture of size and speed.
Barrett should also have plenty of time to get the ball off with a developing offensive line that was real young last year but now has a full season together, led by Grade 12 guards Macgregor Black and Travis Imber, Grade 11 left tackle Colt Maddock and Grade 11 centre Travis Derksen, while Grade 11 Dorian Savard will be starting at right tackle.
“Our line is coming along because they gained a lot of experience last year,” said Sedgwick.
One of their few question marks is at running back with an injury to incumbent starter Jin Ahn leaving them with untested Grade 11 half back Brandt Burzuk at No. 1 on the depth chart.
This may mean a switch to a more wide-open offence with depth in the passing game they have.
“I’m always kind of a 70-30 run-first guy because I’m a former O-lineman, but I do think this is a case this year where our pass game can help set up the run game by spreading the defence out a little bit,” said Sedgwick.
There will be no easing into this season, as they play the rival Lindsay Thurber Raiders on Friday at 7 p.m. at Great Chief Park. The Raiders are the No. 10 ranked tier I team in the province and beat the Lightning in their lone match up last season. With the new format in the league, where the tier I and tier II teams play each other and the tier III and tie IV team play each other, the Lightning and the Raiders will play each other at least twice, three times if they meet in the playoffs.
“When you play a team like this, it has nothing to do with a league championship ... I’ve told these guys ‘Lindsay Thurber deserves to say what they want because they’re 1-0 against us in the last year, you’ve got to go prove (yourself) on Friday and we’ll probably see them two more times after that,” said Sedgwick. “Our guys will be ready.”