Aaron Sheppard and the Lindsay Thurber Raiders coaching staff never wavered in the face of a challenge.
Before they took over, the Raiders were coming off a winless season. In Sheppard’s first year on the sidelines, one win and some strong individual players helped right the ship slightly. He then guided the Raiders to one of the more unexpected results in Central Alberta High School Football. That is if your an outsider.
As head coach, he created significant buy-in with a group that had become comfortable with losing and reset a culture over the course of two years.
That work resulted in a surprising 7-1 regular season this year and a trip to the Alberta Schools Athletic Association Tier I Provincials. Although they lost in the north regional final to the Harry Ainlay Titans 49-21, Lindsay Thurber was the only team to put up 21 points on them this season.
On top of that feat, Sheppard was named the Frank Morris Tier I Coach of the Year by Football Alberta for his efforts. He was quick to credit his coaching staff and players for their hard work as the main reason he was selected.
“It was pretty humbling, a lot of the guys that win it, have won provincials. They must have looked at where the program was and where it went to. There’s only three teams that have gone that far (from Red Deer),” said Sheppard, who will be honoured at a Football Alberta banquet in Calgary on Sunday.
“I was truly humbled by the opportunity to be given it, but it’s my coaching staff and the team that should be getting thanks there, I played a small but and I could not do as much as we did. I gave my guys a text as soon as I got it saying thanks for coaching and helping out because this team has made a turn. “
Some of his help on the sidelines included offensive coordinator Brandon Leyh, defensive coordinator Devon Hand and Kerry Lynch.
Sheppard said he knew this season was special from the get-go, especially after a huge win to kick the year off. They topped the Centennial Coyotes 13-10 and from there, a belief that grew within the group that this could be a unique season.
No wins two seasons ago, just one win last season. Pick up a 13-10 win in exhibition action over Centennial Coyotes from Calgary.
— Byron Hackett (@RDAbyronhackett) September 8, 2018
“That first game, I chose that on purpose to be a measuring stick to get where we had to be, if we ever wanted to play in Provincials. It ended up be a slobberknocker. A bit of a tough game, but we came out and won it and I think the whole season shifted,” Sheppard said.
The toughest loss for the Raiders was against cross-town rival Hunting Hills in the city final, a defeat that also motivated the group going forward. After that game, they traveled to Grande Prairie and stomped the Warriors 55-10 to book a spot in the north regional final.
“We had a really poor game execution wise against Hunting Hills in the (city) championship and they deserved to win. I think our kids took that as a wake-up call. You can’t take games off and you can’t take things for granted,” Sheppard added.
“I think them buying in culture wise and seeing them grow as individuals and seeing the value of what football does, more than just wins and losses and having an ego stroke in high school. It really is life lessons for when you get older… I was overjoyed by the culture shift.”
Sheppard will be back on the sidelines for the Raiders next season.