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Phoenix football coach reflects on rebuilding season

As their results showed, the 2022 season will likely be remembered as a rebuilding year for the Springbank Phoenix high-school football team.
The Springbank Phoenix players pose after their only win of the 2022 season – an 18-15 victory over Bow Valley.

As their results showed, the 2022 season will likely be remembered as a rebuilding year for the Springbank Phoenix high-school football team.

The Phoenix, who in 2018 were the Rocky View Sports Association's (RVSA) runners-up and one of the top-ranked Tier II teams in Alberta, went 0-6 this season.

But they rallied in their penultimate game, putting one in the win column with an 18-15 advantage over the Bow Valley Bobcats in the RVSA's consolation playoff bracket.

In a tough consolation semi-final a week later, Springbank were handily beaten by the W.H. Croxford Cavaliers in their ensuing game.

With a depleted roster due to injuries, they opted to forfeit their last consolation game of the season, against the Chestermere Lakers, to determine who would finish in fifth place in the division this year.

Those results meant the Phoenix ultimately finished with a 1-7 record in 2022.

Springbank Community High School teacher Tyler McRae, who took over head coaching duties for the Phoenix this season, agreed the program has been in rebuilding mode since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From what I understand, the team was very strong before COVID and we got depleted a little bit,” McRae said. “It was definitely a rebuilding year, with only three or four Grade 12s on our team.”

With a few future university-level football players in their line-up, the Phoenix finished second in the RVSA in 2018, only losing to the perennially strong Cochrane Cobras in both the regular season and the RVSA playoffs. Their post-season ended with a loss in the Tier II provincial qualifier against the Holy Trinity Academy Knights, of Okotoks. 

The Green-and-White were still competitive in 2019, finishing third in the RVSA and narrowly missing out on the chance to play for a berth in the ASAA provincials.

But the graduation of key players since then, coupled with a perceived loss of interest among the student body, has led to a drop down the RVSA table in the last two seasons. In 2021, the Phoenix finished fourth in the RVSA, losing out on the bronze to the Bert Church Chargers. 

Without a full pool of Springbank High students to call upon, the team has partnered with the Calgary Christian Academy and Rundle College to flesh out the Phoenix roster. 

“Our team was probably 60 per cent Springbank, 30 per cent Rundle, and then a few kids from Calgary Christian Academy,” McRae said. 

“A lot of the players we had this year, they’re great kids, but a lot hadn’t been involved in higher level athletics before.” 

Despite pooling players from three schools, the Phoenix's roster was still among the smallest in the RVSA this season.

“One thing we lack and have struggled with this year is our total numbers,” McRae said. “We’d play Cochrane and they have 65 guys, and we averaged between 30 and 35 [per game].”

McRae speculates a few factors led to the depleted roster this season. One, he said, was the cancellation of minor football in 2020 due to the pandemic. 

Another challenge has been recruitment, as the team's coaching staff was previously comprised mostly of community coaches, rather than school faculty.

“I’m in the school [every day], so to recruit students right from the school will help,” the teacher said.

“My job coming in here is to recruit some Grade 9s and 10s to set up for the next couple of years to rebuild the program and culture a little bit, and change the philosophy.

While it was overall a tough season to get through, McRae noted an obvious highlight of 2022 was the Phoenix's 18-15 win over the Bow Valley Bobcats – another team that struggled in the RVSA this fall, with just one win – in the consolation playoffs on Oct. 21.

McRae said it meant a lot for the Springbank players' confidence to record a win, even if it was followed by a heavy defeat to Croxford.

“It was huge for those kids to feel some success,” he said. “A lot of them practiced every day. We got beat up pretty good in a few games, so that was a great feeling for the boys. It also motivates us for next year. They now know what it feels like to win a game.”

Now that the season is officially over, McRae said he looks forward to implementing an off-season strength-and-conditioning program for Springbank's players and drawing up plans for a spring training camp. 

“I think we have a really solid group of Grade 10 athletes, so the goal is definitely to rebuild,” he said. “I think we’re a couple of years away from being as competitive as we once were.

“Hopefully in a few years when these Grade 10s are in Grade 12, they’ll have more success.”

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