With their bid to win the WHSL Bowl title dashed for this season, the head coach of the Muskie football team already is looking ahead to next year.
Job one is finding players with the same quality that embodied this year's squad.
“Our goals right now are to recruit players that have heart,” Mike Cuzzolino noted in an e-mailed response to the Times after the black-and-gold's 24-15 semi-final loss to the St. Norbert Celtics last Thursday in Winnipeg.
"Kids that want to win and continue to grow Muskie football, and keep building it into a contender.
“I told the guys [after the loss] to find other guys like them," said Cuzzolino. ”To bring out more guys with heart.
“We don't need a super-talented team,” he reasoned.
“Hard work and heart beat talent every time.”
Cuzzolino, who plans to return as head coach in 2018, said it's going to be very difficult saying good-bye to this year's graduating players.
“Graham Anderson, Sekina Scheibler, and Damon Nyberg have been with me since I took over as head coach in 2014,” he noted.
"Others like Keegan Oliver [and] Reese Jourdain have been with me since Grade 10.
“It's going to be very, very weird to not have those guys around,” he stressed.
“We spend so much time together and these guys love this team like they're brothers," Cuzzolino added. ”We truly have a football family and it's going to be very tough to watch these players go.
“They are the ones that are responsible for changing the culture of this team,” he lauded.
“They've done all the legwork turning this program around.”
Cuzzolino said a few years ago, when he first took over as head coach, not many guys would have cared more or less the outcome of the season or game.
“[Thursday] night, there wasn't a dry eye in the dressing room,” he noted.
"They've developed a passion for the game and a love for each other, and it's because of the work that those veteran guys have done over the last four years.
“I could not be more proud of this group of men.”
Cuzzolino said a few costly turnovers offensively, and just struggling to move the ball on offence, was the key to Thursday's loss.
“Our defence played extremely well, really limiting them [the Celtics] in moving the football,” he noted.
“They completed three long pass plays [each about 20 yards or more] to score, otherwise our defence really shut them down.”
The turning point that sealed it, said Cuzzolino, was when St. Norbert scored its third touchdown.
“The way things were going, and our struggles offensively, made it difficult to mount a comeback,” he conceded, noting St. Norbert also tacked on a 15-yard field goal.
Anderson and Scheibler each rushed for touchdowns for the Muskies, with Scheibler also scoring on a two-point conversion.
St. Norbert now faces the West Kildonan Wolverines, who edged the Churchill Bulldogs 34-30 in the other semi-final later Thursday, in the WHSFL Bowl final scheduled for today (Nov. 8).
Despite seeing their season come to an end, in which the Muskies went 2-5 to finish tied for seventh with the Tec Voc Hornets in the 10-team Andy Currie Division ('A') before winning their first-round playoff game by default over the Maples Marauders, Cuzzolino thought the team had a great year overall on both sides of the ball.
“We are young and vastly improved from last year,” he remarked, adding most of the team's starting offence is slated to return.
“We will continue to grow and improve for next year.”
The team's “red zone” offence was an area of concern all season.
“What cost us some games [was] the inability to score from inside the 20-yard line,” Cuzzolino conceded.
“Defensively, we started to see some young guys blossom into some real football players this season,” he lauded.
"We were able to get some key stops from our defence in the games that we won, and largely they were able to come up with some big plays when we needed them.
“Our issue defensively, really, was stopping the run and tackling,” he said.
Special teams also is an area the team needs to improve on.
“You win and lose games on special teams, and that was evident in our game against West Kildonan, when they took a punt back 110 yards for a touchdown,” Cuzzolino noted.
“We also gave up at least five-six kickoff or punt returns for touchdowns, and also many big returns on special teams,” he recalled.
“We also had about five-six punts blocked this year and this is the first season, in about four seasons, where we didn't return a kick or a punt for a TD this year.”
Cuzzolino conceded special teams is especially tough when you only have a roster of about 22 players.
“It's extremely hard . . . when you were just playing either offence or defence and you're out of breath, completely gassed, then have to play [on] special teams,” he noted.
“We have some real warriors on this team . . . that hardly ever came off the field,” Cuzzolino said, citing Scheibler, Anderson, and Nyberg, along with Sean Huziak, Riley Argue, Jayden Woolsey, Brady Meeks, Colten Allen, Wyatt Richards, and Ayden Gushulak.
“And of the 22 players on the team, none ever complained about having to do an extra job,” he stressed.
“These kids gave it their absolute all for the team.”
Tackling the chronic player shortage that has plagued the Muskie program for several years now also needs to be addressed.
“The big reason for the player shortage is that they're not playing the game as young kids," said Cuzzolino. ”We no longer have a [Grade] 7/8 youth program and we're really feeling the effects from it.
“Kids don't grow up playing it, and don't have a passion or understanding of the game when they enter high school, so there isn't a lot of interest to play it,” he reasoned.
Cuzzolino said most communities now have youth football, noting Dryden and Kenora have benefitted big time from their youth programs.
And in bigger centres like Winnipeg, they're playing football as early as they are hockey.
“So it makes it hard to compete when we have kids with next-to-no experience in football going against kids who have been playing football most of their lives,” he remarked.
“We need to start developing our youth," he stressed. "Getting them playing the game in some aspect so they have a passion and understanding and some skills for the game when they enter high school.”
While there had been talk of resurrecting a junior football program locally, Cuzzolino wasn't sure if there still were plans to do so.
“But we need one badly,” he said.
“I'd be willing to help someone get it started again,” Cuzzolino noted.
“I would give playbooks, practice plans, whatever tools they needed to get another program off the ground and be a feeder program for the Muskies.”