The Lindsay Thurber Raiders learned a little something about expectations during the 2013 Central Alberta High School Football season.
They went into the campaign hoping to push the Hunting Hills Lightning for top spot, but struggled against rivals Notre Dame and Rocky Mountain House, ultimately losing in the first round of provincials to the Salisbury Sabres.
Their expectations this season may be even higher with a veteran team returning, but they have a much better idea of how to handle that self imposed pressure.
“We have to manage expectations and play every down,” said head coach Dave Smith.
They have all of the elements of a successful team — a dominant offensive line, a deep corps of receivers, an exciting prospect at quarterback, and a tough physical defence with one of the best secondaries in Central Alberta.
With a little more than a week to go before their season opens up on Sept. 5 against Hunting Hills, the trick is getting it all on the same page.
“If we keep the work ethic we have right now and keep the team speed up, there’s definitely a chance that we can go and win it all,” said Grade 12 free safety Owen Smith. “We all believe and the coaches all believe it, so that’s the goal.”
The secondary will be led by Smith, coming off a summer playing with Team Alberta’s U-18 team at the Red River Cup in Winnipeg.
The five-foot-11, 165-pound defensive back says that experience will be integral to his and the team’s success this year.
Smith says after playing with the best players in his age group, play has slowed down on the field for him, from a recognition stand point. He also hopes he picked up a few new traits of his own.
“Everybody there is big and physical and they want to let you know it, so I just want to bring that back and have a real physical game this fall,” he said.
The bulk of the defensive backs unit — also including Dawson McCrea, Sam Vesely — has been together since peewee football and are a cohesive unit.
“We didn’t graduate anybody in the secondary last year, so we’re all returning, we all know the system and we’re all really close,” said Smith, who is also the team’s kicker and returns punts.
But the head coach says there will be no passivity on defence. They are going to hit hard and force their opponents to make mistakes with a linebacking corps led by Bryce Maki and a defensive line led by Marty Maksymetz and Riley Ackerman.
Offensively, the team is loaded with potential.
There is heated battle for playing time during camp at the receiver position with a strong returning group — Gordie Walls, T.K. Kunaka and Colbi Street — being pushed by a number of young wideouts including Jonathan Goulet and David Dunbar.
But Walls says the group is not just about depth.
“We’ve got some that are a little younger with lots of potential, but we have a lot of older guys that have lots of experience and really high quality receivers for high school,” he said.
The biggest wildcard is a former receiver. Grade 10 standout Ben Pasiuk has been moved to quarterback to replace the graduated Braydon Moorman.
Pasiuk has played the position for much of his football life until last year, but he was regarded as one of the best young receivers in the province, also making the U-18 provincial team.
Walls says he has looked strong through the first week of training camp.
“Everything I’ve seen so far has been thrown good and he has a lot of potential to do some running from the quarterback position,” he said. “We’ve been passing a lot at practice, making sure all of plays are crisp and making sure the quarterback knows all of the reads on all of the plays.”
But Smith says the team will not live and die through the air.
Balance is going to be key this year with a running game led by Brad Pope and Vesely.
The foundation of that balanced offence will be their veteran line, anchored by Jared Ferguson, Matt Atchison and Tony Morelli.
“If everyone shows up and plays well, we have the ability to hurt you through the air and hurt teams on the ground,” said Smith.
The league also moved to a new format this year with the top two tiers playing each other and the bottom two tiers playing each other. This means Lindsay Thurber, Hunting Hills, Notre Dame and Lacombe will play each other twice each, setting up a potentially higher level of competition among the four schools.
The high point of 2013 for the Raiders last season was beating the Thunder in the third week, but they were not able to capitalize on that momentum.
Playing Hunting Hills in the first week will let them know right away just where they stand.
“We’re certainly shooting for a league championship and a strong showing at provincials,” said Smith. “(Hunting Hills) is a very good team but that was a big game for us last year … we know they’re beatable as well. We have to learn how to play as well after a game like that as we did before it we were pretty happy with ourselves and we have to learn how to keep going.”