This year’s Central Alberta High School Football League MVP’s mirrored each other.
Both Hunting Hill Lightning’s Tanner Olstad and Sylvan Lake Lakers Kyle Eckenswiller play receiver and defensive back, both lead their teams to division championships, and both are more substance over style athletes.
They optimized the term football player.
While others on their teams grabbed big headlines, they emerged as leaders.
Eckenswiller, who got the nod for the Rural Division and also secured the rural special teams player of the year, was caught off guard by the accolades.
“MVP is awesome, it goes to show how great my team was,” he said. “It was the team that won me the award.”
The Lakers came a long way this year with Eckenswiller, 17. They started their season with a big loss, but rebounded to win the rest of the way, beating the Camrose Trojans in the Rural Division championship.
“It showed our team’s character,” he said. “We really rallied around each other after our first loss and I thought we really played well after that.
“We learned we weren’t going to come in untouched, we had to work hard for all of our wins and we had to prove ourselves that we were the best in the league and at the end it showed.”
Eckenswiller ended the year as the Rural Division leader in receiving yards with 164 on 11 catches with three touchdowns and added another in the return game. He also was second in the division in interceptions with two.
The the six-foot-two, 165-pound Sylvan Lake native says he plans to test his ability next season at either the junior or university level.
The Lakers had 12 all-stars overall, including Eckenswiller.
Olstad, meanwhile, quietly had three receiving touchdowns on 11 catches for 204 yards while shutting down the other team’s best receivers.
Hunting Hills players winning this award is nothing new — they have earned it in each of the preceding two seasons before Olstad — and that’s a fact not lost on the six foot, 155-pound 176-year-old.
“I’ve always looked up to Scott (Pearson) and Ashton (Hall) who won it the last two years. So being compared to them, it just feels amazing,” he said.
His versatility and football acumen is a prime example of why the Lightning have won championships the past three seasons. Olstad was part of all three of those titles, but this year was his opportunity to step up and shine.
They had 12 all-stars this year and almost all of them were Grade 12’s, but that is a common theme for head coach Kyle Segewick.
“It becomes tougher every year, because every year we have some success the target gets a little bigger and some of the players we have coming into next year haven’t had the experience of starting, said Segewick. It’s no joke, of the 12 of the kids we had up there, only three of them started for us last year,” he said.
“Every year we’re right around 14 or 15 Grade 12’s, it’s not easy to do, but that’s part of the program. One of these years it will catch up with us and we’ll have to go with a younger group, but right now we rely on the Grade 12s to teach the young guys to understand what we expect.”
Football has shaped Olstad at Hunting Hills and now hopes to also take it to the next level, already having applied at the University of Alberta, while knowing junior football is a solid back up plan.
“It taught us to work hard and get as good as you possibly can to get better,” said Olstad. “(Segewick) says every day you either get better or you get worse, that’s how we look at it and I take that into my life every day.”
Notre Dame Cougars graduating receiver, defensive back and kick returner Jesse Kowalchuk was named City defensive player of the year and shared City Special teams player of the year with Lindsay Thurber Raiders Owen Smith.
It was also a big night for the future of local high school football with a number of young stars recognized. Notre Dame Cougars running back Johannes Smith was named City Division rookie of the year after leading the entire league in rushing while Stettler Wildcats quarterback Jordan Lane took the award for the rural division,
Then with offensive player of the year Grade 11 quarterback Ben Pasiuk took the honour.
“Central Alberta is the hidden secret of football players,” said Notre Dame head coach Gino Castellan. “Tonight we have five CIS and junior and senior teams come out because they know the talent is here.”