If the Notre Dame Cougars are to reach the Central Alberta High School Football League final for a second successive year, head man Gino Castellan and his staff will have to employ their coaching skills more than ever.
Unlike the 2012 season when the Cougars were loaded with veterans — including several at the skill positions — and fell 27-26 to the Hunting Hills Lightning in the championship game, this year’s squad is loaded with newcomers.
“We have good numbers with close to 50 bodies, but we’re really young. We have 25 Grade 10s,” said Castellan, whose team opens non-conference play tonight versus the Ponoka Broncs at 7:30 p.m. at Great Chief Park.
“It’s absolutely a rebuilding year for us. For the past two weeks we’ve been doing a lot of skill work and just getting these guys to the point where they can at least compete.”
The 2013 Cougars are minus the likes of quarterback Kieran Pruden, who passed for a league-best 918 yards last season, and Myles Corsiatto, the league’s top rusher with 698 yards.
Also gone are receiver Jordan Briault (291 yards with four touchdowns), kicker Luis Moreno, punter Logan Hughes and defensive back Darian Banack, who had two interceptions last year.
Kaelan MacDonald will handle quarterbacking duties this year and will aim for rookie slotback Taylor Vada and hand off to first-year running back Roberto Mkumbukua.
“I think Kaelan is going to have a good year. He’s only in Grade 11 but he played quite a bit last year,” said Castellan. “He knows the system and we’ll see how well he does.”
Team Alberta pick Joe McQuay and Spencer Nielsen will anchor a strong offensive line, while other key returnees include linebackers Luke Castellan and Luc Laplante and defensive back Jesse Kowalchuk.
“Our offensive line is going to be pretty good and if we do switch a few people around I think we’ll be strong in other areas as long as we’re injury-free,” said the long-time Cougars head coach.
“We have some good athletes, but they’re raw,” he added. “But we will get better as the season goes on. We have only six to eight Grade 12s, but we’re still shooting to make the playoffs and see what happens from there.”
Castellan has added one of his former players — Pat Callan — to his coaching staff which consists also of Ted Brode, Adam Donovan, Dale Henderson, Gary LaGrange, Dave Laplante, Al McQuay, Ole Stearns and Ian Watson.