Only a few years ago, Central Alberta wasn’t even involved in an event like this.
They’ve started to arrive on the provincial stage in a big way and are showcasing the top U16 and U18 talent the area has to offer this weekend at Titans Park.
At the Alberta Regional rugby Championship, while Calgary and Edmonton may still hold much of the advantage, growth and interest in the sport is pushing some of the local talent into the national and international lens.
At the U18 girls level, the Central Alberta Predators have eight players that will play collegiate rugby somewhere next season and last year, they had close to 20 players on the provincial Wolfpack team.
“Our U18 girls have had a lot of success in the last couple of years that has been building momentum over four or five years in the program. We saw a provincial win at the club level, then we did win this tournament last year. Pushing to that new level, we’re seeing great talent coming from other teams, too,” said Kenton Poelzer, the Central Alberta Predators coordinator.
“The U18 (girls) program in Alberta is really strong now. My hope (for Central Alberta) is they play their hearts out and they show their ability.”
The tournament this weekend at Titans Park is a double-barrelled showcase. It allows colleges and universities to recruit the best players in the province at the U18 level. It also pits the best players in Alberta against one another, with the purpose of selecting players to represent at the Western Canadian Championships later this month.
For Predators U18 group on the boys side in Central Alberta, it’s a bit different story. They are facing a development year where they hope to turn many of their Grade 11 players into a strong side next season.
“We think we have a strong team coming in, so we’re interested to see how they finish. I think we’re going to take a good step forward from this last year,” Poelzer said.
“So we’re excited about it. Still a young team, mostly grade 11. We’re hoping it’s a great foundation year.”
In each of the u16 age groups in Central Alberta, growth is key. For the girls, last year they were chasing players and this season, they actually had to make cuts. It’s that growth that is encouraging to Poelzer.
“They are a growing group and their main goal this weekend is to have a strong development point. We’re a smaller market so we’re just not as competitive at that stage. Our best opportunity is longer-term development,” he said.
“For them to have this first opportunity to represent at this level and push hard for these next three years is really what we’re trying to do. There’s still a lot of great players.”
To open the day Friday, the Predators U16 girls lost 33-17 to the deep south, while the boys won 25-7 over deep south.
Saturday night is also a big opportunity for those young rugby players to see the future of the sport. The Alberta Wolfpack Senior Men will square off against B.C. at Great Chief Park at 7 p.m. Many of the players in that contest have or will represent Canada on the international stage.
U16 and U18 games take place throughout the day Saturday at Titans Park, with the U16 finals set for Saturday at 2:30. The U18 finals are Sunday at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m.