They aren’t wearing shades, at least not yet, but the future looks bright for the Notre Dame Cougars.
After a so-so past that was the 2013 Central Alberta High School Football League season, the present doesn’t look so bad, either.
The Cougars fielded a relatively inexperienced squad last year while posting a 1-3 record within their division, and an overall 3-3 slate that included cross-over exhibitions. This year’s squad features plenty of Grade 10 and 11 players, but the second-year players are now battle-tested and should be that much better for the seasoning.
“We had a good group of Grades 10s last year and we have a good groups of Grade 10s coming in. Five or six first-year guys will probably start for us,” said Cougars head coach Gino Castellan, who will accompany his players to Lacombe today for a 7 p.m. season-opening date with the host Rams at MEGlobal Athletic Park.
“Our strength this season is going to be our Grades 10s and 11s.”
The key Grade 12 returnees include quarterback Keegan MacDonald, who last season completed nine of 37 passes for 222 yards and was second in the division in punting with 456 yards — an average of 32.6 yards per boot — offensive linemen Willie Muhlbach and Marc Lechmann; Jesse Kowalchuk, who will play both sides of the ball; and kicker Eric Meraw.
Meanwhile, the list of first- and second-year players includes the likes of quarterback Devin Desormeau, running backs Justin Fedun and Parker Dahl, linebacker Reiss Flunder, linebacker/offensive lineman Alex Kuhlach, tailback Johannes Smith, receiver/defensive back/linebacker Taylor Vida, Payton LaGrange, Taylor Lawrence and Dag Wande.
“We were young last year and we’re going to be young again,” said Castellan. “But our season is set up well for us.”
The Cougars will play in a Tier 1-2 division that includes the Rams, Lindsay Thurber Raiders and Hunting Hills Lightning. The clubs will play each other twice and all four teams will make the playoffs.
“Our young kids will have six games before the playoffs, which will be great for them,” said Castellan.
The veteran coach is enthusiastic about the turnout of players this year.
“We have 55 sets of equipment out. That’s the first time we’ve had that many players show up this early. That’s a good sign,” he said.
Castellan’s crew lost a pair of close games last season, falling to Lacombe and Sylvan Lake in the late stages of each contest.
He’ll be looking for a quicker start this year considering the Cougars already have a preseason game under their belts. Notre Dame lost to the Bev Facey Falcons of Sherwood Park, who are No. 7 in Football Alberta’s pre-season rankings of provincial Tier 1 high school teams.
“We played a very good team and the result was expected,” said Castellan. “But we learned a lot about our team and the kids learned about the speed the game should be played at. There was a lot of positives we took out of that game.”
The Cougars will take on another perennial provincial contender, the Cochrane Cobras, in an exhibition encounter during Notre Dame’s bye week at the end of September.
“We’re showing these kids what football should be like,” said Castellan, who is heading into the 2014 season with a positive outlook.
“I’m excited. If these young kids progress through the weeks here who knows what will happen in the middle of October,” he added.