After graduating 11 of 12 Central Alberta Football League all-star players, the defending City Division champion Hunting Hills Lightning might be expected to slide down the list of contenders in 2015.
But these are the Lightning, the three-time defending champs and winners of four of the last five titles.
“We were pretty heavy with the Grade 12 all stars last year, but we usually are,” head coach Kyle Sedgwick said Thursday. “But we have a lot of guys who will step up this season, We’re young in the skill positions but we’re confident with the ability of our linemen, our running backs and our linebackers.
“We just have to stay healthy. That’s the key.”
The one 2014 all star who is returning is running back Brandt Burzuk, who projects as one of the league’s premier ground-gainers this year. Burzuk earned a spot with Team Alberta for the Football Canada Cup this summer.
“Brandt will carry the load for us this year. He had a great off-season. He trained really hard and made Team Alberta,” said Sedgwick. “He had a great Canada Cup, he learned a lot there. He’s going to be counted on quite a bit this season.”
Joining Burzuk on Team Alberta were Lightning linebacker Edward Kim and two-way lineman Travis Derksen, who played on the O-line during the Canada Cup.
“Kim made Team Alberta as a Grade 10 linebacker, which is a pretty impressive feat,” said Sedgwick. “These three young men learned a lot and they brought that experience and leadership back with them.”
Derksen will anchor the Lightning offensive and defensive lines this year, while Colton Maddock is also expected to be front and centre on the D-line and fellow veterans Cole Layden and Brandon Lundy will be go-to players at the linebacker position. The secondary will feature the likes of Zach Pilgrim and Kade Damant.
“Even though we had a big Grade 12 group last year and a lot of them were all stars, we have a good returning group that include quite a few starters,” said Sedgwick. “We’re a little young and inexperienced at quarterback and receiver, but we just have to make that work.
“We have a lot of Grade 10s. Our bantam team was fairly strong last year with a lot of skill guys, so we have a lot of skill coming at receiver and defensive back, it’s just going to take them some time to catch up to the speed of the senior game.
“I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen of them so far.”
Eric Thomson, who was the backup to all star Brett Barrett in 2014, will start at quarterback when the Lightning take on the Notre Dame Cougars in the season-opener for both teams tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Great Chief Park.
“He knows the system, he knows the footwork,” said Sedgwick. “We also have three Grade 10s who have come a long way and will be good quarterbacks, but they’re not there yet.”
Jordan Lenius and Josh Patterson are two rookie receivers of note, while veteran Kaden Hall will also be a prime target for Thomson.
“He’s just a very intelligent player,” Sedgwick said of Hall. “He’s one of those guys who will be a coach some day.”
Sedgwick and his coaching staff set their sights high every season and in recent years have not been disappointed.
“With the league structure we’re always going to be competitive,” said the head coach. “We’ve built a strong culture here and always have enough veteran players coming back. We preach habits and proper preparation, we try and treat it like post secondary.
“Some years we’ve won when maybe we didn’t have the best talent, but guys believe in the process.”
The head coach certainly does not feel that his team will steamroll to a title this year. On the contrary . . .
“This year I think all the teams in our division are going to be good,” said Sedgwick. “Lacombe and Notre Dame were young last year and they’re going to be very good.
“And Lindsay Thurber, even with (quarterback) Ben Pasiuk injured right now, they still have a very good group of players in Grade 11 and 12 who did very well when they were in bantam. And of course they beat us twice last year before we were able to overcome them in the division final.
“All four teams should be very good this year. We’re just hoping to compete and eventually represent the zone in the tier 2 provincials.”