The real work began in earnest on the gridiron this week as the Muskie football team prepares to open its season next Friday (Sept. 11) on the road against the Kenora Broncos.
“We’re in much better shape than I thought we’d be,” Muskie coach Dean Bruyere said.
“We’re not going to knock down any buildings or anything, but we’re going to play ball with them,” he vowed.
A consistent number of 25-30 kids have taken part in the senior program workouts each night since training camp opened Aug. 24, and a similar number have taken part in the junior program (Grade 6-8) that returned for this season.
“Before camp started, I figured if we finished at .500 I’d be happy,” Muskie defensive co-ordinator Bob Whitburn said.
“But after looking at the numbers we’ve had out all last week, and considering we’re expecting another 10-12 once school starts, I’m pretty optimistic about our chances this year,” he added.
“.500 shouldn’t be out of the question.”
The program has benefitted greatly by an influx of coaches this year after operating with just four full-time ones a season ago.
“The biggest thing over last year is the kids didn’t get enough coaching, only because of the numbers of coaches,” Bruyere noted.
“We have lots now, so there’s someone who will be specifically working with the line, somebody who is going to focus on the backs, and on down the line.
“It’s really great having those [graduating] seniors, like [Matt] DePiero, [Jeremy] Whitehead, [Tyler] Romyn, and [Jim] Whitburn and those guys who are helping out, too,” Bruyere added.
Whitburn agreed no coach is stretched too thin now, which allows everyone to work on their specific areas of expertise.
Chad Canfield has helped Whitburn defensively by focusing on linebacking and special teams.
“[Chad] is a definite asset. Greg Allan will help when he can with the defensive backs, but I’m going to be working with them a fair bit here so that should be interesting,” Whitburn admitted.
“They are going to be the hardest-hitting defensive back unit in the league anyway,” he pledged.
Whitburn is working in an inexperienced group of linemen, but is optimistic they can step in and perform quickly.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of who is going to be playing where, and I have an idea of who’s starting where, but that could change,” Whitburn noted.
“We’re going to enforce the policy of lates from practices and class, so saying you’ll start today doesn’t mean you’ll actually be starting next Friday,” he stressed.
The black-and-gold have not scheduled any exhibition play—focusing, instead, on repetition in practice to hammer down the details first.
“I’m more concerned with preparing us to be ready for the season,” Bruyere said. “We don’t want to put kids out into a situation where it might not be safe for them.
“[Exhibition games] are good to have, but I don’t know if it’s worth jeopardizing things just to have a look, especially [in regards to] the safety and well-being of kids,” he added.
“We’ve got all these Grade 9s who have never played, so it’s kind of tough.”
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise so far has been the resurgence of the junior program—headed by former Muskie coach Bob Swing.
“It’s definitely nice to see the junior program going on,” Whitburn enthused. “Greg Allan is back, ‘Hornswoggle’ [Bob Swing] is leading it, so hopefully that will start producing for us in a few years at the ‘A’ level again.
“It’s come and gone over the last 20 years, but that’s because coaches disappear,” Whitburn noted.
“We’ve got guys in there right now who are planning on sticking with it.”
The junior program plans to suit up against Kenora’s Grade 9 and 10 team in some exhibition action later this fall.
The Muskies finished a disappointing 2-5 in Tier II of the Winnipeg High School Football League last season and are hoping to build the program back up to where it was in the late-1990s.
In 1998, the Muskies beat Oak Park 22-14 in exhibition play—handing the Raiders their only loss in a year they went undefeated in league play en route the WHSFL title.
Fort High also beat Winnipeg’s St. James Rods, comprised of players aged 17-20, by a 25-20 score at Winnipeg Stadium [now Canad Inns Stadium], and also handed the vaunted St. Paul’s Crusaders a 53-30 loss.
The black-and-gold also recorded back-to-back shutouts over the Sturgeon Creek Schooners (62-0) and Crocus Plains of Brandon (63-0) that same season.
That year, due to a teachers’ strike, the Muskies played an exhibition schedule separate from NorWOSSA action.
“The old saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ and it takes time, but I think a year or two and we could be contenders,” Bruyere said. “I’ve been around this long enough to know what it takes.
“In , we went into Winnipeg and beat everybody.
“We had Terry LaBelle and Dana Preston [as running backs], which was the best tandem I remember having in football,” Bruyere recalled. “The line were all members of the chess club and were big, fast, and smart.
“They had brains and brawn.”
As mentioned, the Muskies will open the new campaign Sept. 11 at 4 p.m. in Kenora. The Muskies beat the Broncos 7-4 in their lone meeting last season.
“We’ve always had good games with Kenora,” Whitburn said. “Chris Penner knows the game and is a good coach, always fun playing them.
“I think, from what I’ve heard, he is in the same boat as us with few returning players, but it sounds like his numbers might be a little more than us right now, but we’ll see.”
The black-and-gold have their home-opener the following Friday (Sept. 18) against the Vincent Massey Trojans of Winnipeg (all home games start at 3 p.m.), then they go on the road Sept. 25 against the River East Kodiaks.
Week 4 has the Muskies on the road again versus the Maples Marauders on Oct 1.
Fort High beat the Marauders last season for one of their two victories (the other being against Kenora).
The home team returns to host Miles Mac on Oct. 9, and then goes back to Winnipeg to face Tec Voc the following week (Oct. 16).
The Muskies host Portage in their regular-season finale on Oct. 24.
The quarter-finals go the following week (Oct. 29-30), with the semi-finals scheduled for the first week of November.
The championship bowl games are set for Nov. 13 at CanadInns Stadium, with the Tier II “Free Press Bowl” on the docket at 5 p.m.