The Lindsay Thurber Raiders have a lot to prove in 2017.
After a losing campaign in 2016, newly minted head coach Aaron Sheppard has the group finely tuned for their high school football season opener on Friday against Hunting Hills.
“We started way earlier than we ever have before. We’re rebuilding this year. We had a tough year last year so I took over the team last spring. New coaching staff, new philosophy and new culture. Kids are buying in a ton, super happy,” he said.
Sheppard is a Raider himself from many moons ago and served as an assistant for almost 20 years before taking a year off from senior football last year. He thinks that will help him build a new culture and strong program going forward.
“Last year was a very hard year for them. We just wanted to instill the idea that we are changing the culture and we’re changing what’s happening,” Sheppard said.
“This team has been around for 50 years and it’s one of the oldest teams in all of Alberta. I’m a graduate of the program so I have a big heart for the team. It’s been successful in the past and I want to bring that back.”
Almost the entire coaching staff of the Raiders this season are graduates of the program. Sheppard said early on in the year, that’s helped build a strong bond between coach and players. Sean Vandervlis, the quarterback who was also at the helm last season, is ready for a breakout year. Max Arnold will be back once again at tailback, and Cade Best is one of the their go to receivers.
On defence, they’ll be led by returning defensive back Evan Aldridge. Combined with two Grade 11 returners in Connor McCrae and Kaiden Puttick, the head coach hopes they can surprise a few teams this season. There’s some new plays on offence and a few new formations on defence, but mostly he believes a philosophy change will be the big step to building a strong season.
“Opportunity and responsibility,” Sheppard said plainly.
“That’s all we’re trying to work at because that’s how you get winning teams. That every game and practice repetition is an opportunity to get better, that’s how teams become champions. Responsibility with our team, we’re brothers. We all come together, we’re all sweating and working together to get the team turned around. Just those two points all year.”
Ultimately, Sheppard isn’t going to focus on wins and losses this year but the bigger picture and a potential playoff win when the time comes in November.
“We’re working towards basically a six-game training camp to playoffs,” he said. “The way our league works, (Friday) is one stepping stone to playoffs. There’s something to be said for finishing first and winning games. I just want to go to the lab, experiment with what works and doesn’t work every single week. I’m excited to see what we have.”