The football pads are unpacked, the schedule is set and the provincial health officer has given her official stamp of approval.
Barring any unforeseen events – and the world does seem to specialize in those these days – high school football will return to British Columbia this week for the first time since the end of the 2019 season. And the first game on the schedule will feature North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles crossing the bridge to take on Vancouver College in a road game Thursday (Sept. 2) at 1 p.m.
Last week, the Eagles practised in full pads for the first time since 2019, their first time hitting the field for full-contact drills since COVID-19 wiped out the entire game schedule in 2020 and limited the team to physically distanced practices only. It was great to get back to practising real football, said Carson Graham head coach Brian Brady.
“It was special,” he said. “It was odd, but it felt real. Through 2020 we never practised with equipment once. So that was interesting. But having the equipment on makes it feel real, and it's nice that we're progressing towards something.”
Being limited to physically distanced practices for so long has allowed the coaching staff to focus on things other than the day-to-day grind of a football schedule, said Brady.
“The void of preparing for games has led the coaching staff to shift their focus elsewhere, and that's been to character construction, and team building. So I think now we have a stronger foundation, so that when we do introduce contact in, we're in a safe environment, we're better teammates and we're able to support each other more.”
The reintroduction of contact will, however, be a bit of shock for players who have been prohibited from tackling or blocking for more than a year and a half, said Ecole Handsworth Secondary head coach Darren Benning.
“It’s hard for them in some degrees because they haven’t played football for two years,” said Benning. “You start hitting again ... and there’s going to be some bruises and bumps that they’re not used to. And that’s part of training camp too, and they’re going to get through that and just get back in the flow of things.”
Benning’s Royals will open the season with a scrimmage against their North Vancouver rivals the Argyle Pipers this Thursday, Sept. 2, at 3 p.m. at William Griffin turf field. It could be a little sloppy as the players get reintroduced to game action after nearly two years off, Benning admitted, but he and the players are just thrilled to be working together towards a common goal.
“The reason I coach is to be on the field with the kids,” he said. “I really missed it during the time away, not just calling plays or having strategy meetings with coaches, but being out there with the kids and enjoying football and having fun outside, instead of stuck in my office, which is where I am most of the time. I really missed it, and it feels great to be on the field again.”
There are five North Shore senior teams ready to get back in action this season, with West Van and Windsor joining Carson Graham and Argyle in the AA Coastal Division, and Handsworth playing in the AAA Pacific division. The Royals and Eagles are scheduled to meet in the annual Buchanan Bowl on Sept. 10, meaning all five of the North Shore teams will play each other at least once throughout the season.
“It’s really neat to have that North Shore competition,” said Brady. “That’s important. … It’s a great thing for the North Shore community. We get to play everyone on the North Shore for the first time since 2015, I believe.”
Both Benning and Brady emphasized that even though they have been given the green light to play ball, their teams are still very cognizant of the ongoing pandemic and following all relevant health and safety procedures. Every member of the Handsworth coaching staff has been double vaccinated, said Benning.
The announcement last week that high school sports were coming back this year provided a boost for the athletes who lost an entire season last year, added Brady.
“It’s really exciting because it symbolizes a return to normal-ish,” he said. “We know we’re not back to normal – we’re going to be wearing masks, we’re going to be going through a ton of safety procedures and there’s a bunch of stuff we need to be aware of and do differently, but being able to have a school event in the first week of school is going to be really special.”
Visit the BC Secondary Schools Football Association website for full schedules for teams across the province.