THE clock was ticking down on the Argyle Pipers senior football team last Friday in their AA league matchup against the Handsworth Royals.
Frantically fighting for the goal line in the final minute of play, the Pipers put together a string of tough runs to get within striking distance. The field goal unit raced onto the field and got their kick up as the clock dropped to less than 10 seconds. The ball went up, over the line and . . . wide left.
With that, the final score was Handsworth 33, Argyle 0. Such is the life of a new football team.
The Pipers weren't racing the clock to score a win over the Royals, they were racing to score their first points of the season. It was not to be on this day as the Pipers endured their fourth shutout in four games.
Argyle played in the lower Tier 2 league last year, the school's first senior football season in 30 years, and this year were bumped up to play against the big boys in the AA Western Conference.
There was a moment of dejection as the kick sailed wide against Handsworth but soon the Argyle players were smiling, hugging and fired up once more. They've still got a few games to play and a lot of room to grow as they continue their first season of AA football since 1981.
"It's all about the fun you have," said Grade 12 running back/linebacker Stuart Bourne after the game. "You can't expect to move up a division, win all your games and make the playoffs. As long as everybody is having fun it makes me happy."
Grade 12 quarterback Nelson Davis, under pressure for most of the game, agreed.
"(I'm) feeling tired but we had fun out there," he said with a little laugh. "We made a good push in the fourth quarter and just hope to build on it."
The stage is set for the team's biggest game of the year. Their biggest, in fact, in 31 years. This Saturday they'll take the field at Argyle for their first home game since 1981. The schedule says it's just a 1: 30 p.m. exhibition game against Eric Hamber, but for the Pipers it's so much more.
"There's a buzz, there's an excitement going on right now in our program about this game," said co-head coach Milan Boljuncic. "Lynn Valley is a very unique kind of neighbourhood in the city. Everybody kind of knows everybody, we have a ton of people who still live there who went to school there. I'm excited for not just me but for the kids - they're going to be the first group in 31 years to play a football game in front of people in their own community."
Saturday's game will be a chance to celebrate a lot of hard work that has gone into reviving the program, a process that began seven or eight years ago when Boljuncic transferred from Windsor to Argyle and accelerated in recent years as a committed group of parents fought to raise funds for the team.
Shane Sheehan, whose son Grady is a Grade 12 player this year, is one of those parents. He played football at Argyle back in 1976 and '77 and wanted to see it return.
"I always thought that football was great for boys," said Sheehan. "It taught them a lot about life. I had a great coach at Argyle, a guy by the name of Dave Backie. Coach Backie was an amazing coach, taught me a lot about how to conduct myself as a person, not just about the game of football. I think it's just a great game."
The toughest challenge off the field has been raising the big money needed to equip and outfit a new team. Helmets alone cost $300 a pop. Parents and coaches have led the efforts, with private donors coming on board along with fundraising drives using player power. The Pipers even partnered with a fish-selling program.
"The (boys) were out selling salmon and halibut," said Sheehan with a laugh.
On the field, wins have been as slippery as the fish they're selling. The Pipers were hoping to play one more year of Tier 2 but were forced to move up to AA this season. Winning has taken a backseat to other goals this year.
"On the scoreboard we may not be able to put the points up like the other guys but we challenge our kids physically every week to come out and play four quarters. As you saw today we played right to the end," said Boljuncic. "I think the kids knew from Day 1 that when we moved into AA we would be hard pressed against everyone in our conference and we'd be hard pressed to make the playoffs. I think the writing is on the wall for us, we're winless in all of our league play. What's most important for Dave and I is that we provide an opportunity for kids to have fun. We're providing an opportunity to give back to the kids a unique experience to play football."
A wide variety of athletes have accepted that opportunity. Several of the Pipers never played organized football before this season, including a few international students who wanted to get into the game.
Co-head coach Dave Heskin was surprised when a Grade 10 Brazilian exchange student named Luca Mocellin signed himself up.
"He came to me and said, 'I want to play football,'" said Heskin. "I thought he meant soccer. He said, 'No, football. Helmet, shoulder pad, hit.' . . . There's a lot of new players here and that's really a challenge. They're athletes - they play basketball and rugby and stuff - but with not playing football at all they are purely green. We've got two guys out there starting at corner who have never even played the game before. It's challenging but they're stepping up."
The Grade 12 players on the team know they may not win a football game in their short careers but there are other things to play for now.
"I just hope in 20 years I can look back and be like, 'Yeah, I was on the first team,'" said Bourne. "I hope that we have great success in the future."
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Game time Saturday vs. Eric Hamber is 1: 30 p.m. at Argyle secondary.
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