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Sharing the love of the game

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First-time high school football players joined veteran juniors Thursday for the 2013 Haldimand-Norfolk Junior Football Jamboree at Valley Heights Secondary School, south of Langton.

“It’s been a good day so far,” said VHSS football coach David Zakel, waiting for the Delhi-Holy Trinity controlled scrimmage to end before the Bears returned to the field for their third match of four.

“Everybody but Hagersville’s here.”

Haldimand-Norfolk junior teams from Simcoe CS and Holy Trinity, Waterford, Delhi, Cayuga and Caledonia participated in the annual tournament-style jamboree, which dates back to 1997.

“It’s all controlled scrimmages, no referees, the coaches are on the field.”

The conference’s first junior football day was held at Valley Heights when Zakel was a Grade 12 Bears all-star football player.

“I was 17, missed it by two years. My brother played in it though.”

He said the football camp serves multiple purposes – it gives Grade 9 and 10s an opportunity to learn the sport, and it’s a recruiting tool for the fall varsity season.

“I’ve got 21 on my team, and I think I had 11 who are non-football players, so this is their first kick at the game. We told them, ‘we want to learn, we want to have fun, and really, at the end of the day if we score a couple points – great. And if we don’t, who cares? What I want you to do is learn the game and enjoy it.’”

In some cases new players love it. Some don’t.

“If you’ve got 10 kids coming out who’ve never played the game before, and you get five… hey, that’s awesome. The big thing is you share the love of the game.

“It’s not two-hand touch and our guys are finding that out,” Zakel laughed. “They coasted through the first two games with no real fire, but we’ve got two really big ones coming up yet… it’ll come. We’ve still got Delhi and Waterford. They’ll figure it out real fast.”

Zakel and the rest of the H-N football coaches had nearly three weeks to prepare the juniors for the one-day exhibitions.

“Three weeks – it’s fine if you have a group of kids who know what they’re doing because you can really condense your practices, and when you have more coaches… As it is for us, a lot of our emphasis is on the offence. Defensively we teach them how to tackle, teach them the defensive concepts. But as a unit most of our guys are playing both ways.”

A promise, he said, was getting everyone into a game by the end of the day.

Zach Thomas, a Grade 10 student who just turned 16 Thursday, was a first-time football quarterback for the Bears.

“We’ve got kids who’ve never played, playing key positions – it’s huge,” said Zakel. “He (Thomas) has got a great arm.”

“I started practicing two weeks ago and now I’m here today,” said Thomas moments before the Delhi scrimmage.

“I’ve always liked football but I’ve never done it before. It’s something you’ve got to work on I guess. It took a little getting used to, but I’m getting more confident as the game’s go on.”

He said the biggest challenge, as a quarterback, was making decisions ‘on the fly.’

“Making those decisions, the option plays, it’s always pressure. I got caught off guard a little at the start, but it got better.”

An experienced Langton minor hockey player, Thomas enjoyed the contact aspect of the sport.

“Obviously you can’t body check, you tackle, but I’ve been able to bring some of the skills over to football.”

Watching the Delhi-Trinity game, Thomas anticipated a good scrimmage.

“I think we’ve got a set game-plan beforehand.”

Bears’ Ryan Thammavongsa, also in Grade 10, already has two years varsity football under his belt.

“It’s pretty much like a scrimmage today, I think,” said Thammavongsa, playing slotback Thursday. “Senior’s a lot harder because the game speed’s a lot faster, but if you’re a first-year and you’re just learning the game, it’s easier to pick up in junior.

“In three weeks, if you stay focused, you can learn the basics. You can learn how to tackle, you can learn your position really well.

“Today I’m playing slot. It’s a wide receiver, but it’s not really that far out. I can run the ball – that’s how I got my first touchdown, I did a slotback sweep.”

While Zakel emphasized sharing the love of the game, having fun, and not caring about scores, Thammavongsa put more stock into winning.

“I play to win,” he nodded. “I always play to win. You always try your hardest every time you’re on the field. A couple of guys think it’s just a joke, but for guys who played the senior game, the mentality’s still the same as it was, you still want to win, you still want to get those touchdowns, those tackles.”

Bears’ Grade 10 lineman Rob DeCarolis, also a veteran footballer, was playing both offence and defence Thursday – offensive guard and defensive tackle.

“It’s pretty similar,” said DeCarolis, comparing O-lines and D-lines in varsity and junior football. “There’s still pretty big guys on each team. And it’s probably just an accident, but the bigger guys are lining up against me. So it’s pretty much the same.”

It meant DeCarolis wasn’t running over other Grade 9-10s.

“Everyone’s about a level playing field in this.”

It was a great learning experience, he said, playing on both sides of the ball for the first time.

“This was my first time being on the starting D. Once you get to play on both lines, you learn. It can help you block because you can see what works (offensively), so you can defend against it.”

Both early games, said DeCarolis were competitive.

“We let Cayuga have a few they shouldn’t have, we should have been able to stop them there, but…”

And the Delhi game was definitely on DeCarolis’ radar.

“Delhi beat us, I think, 44-0, last season. So I want to win that one. There’s no particular team that we’re watching, but it wouldn’t hurt to beat one of them (Delhi or Waterford).”

Bears’ Justin Cridland, also a junior veteran, was a runningback Thursday.

“This was my first year on offence, it’s awesome, I’m loving it, it’s great,” said Cridland. “I like running through people, it’s fun.

“I played defence in past years. I’m liking it today – I like just having the ball and trying to get the points instead of defending them.”

Cridland was still without a touchdown after two scrimmages, but he was planning to change that against Delhi.

“I’m planning to this game,” he nodded with a smile. “The next game is going to be great. It’s going to be a tight game, but… I think we got it.”

Offensively, it turned out to be an accurate prediction. Valley Heights took first possession and Cridland scored his first TD of the day on the Bears’ third play of the 10-play offensive series. VHSS had set up Cridland’s 10-yard point-scoring run with a long Thomas throw to Thammavongsa, a play that was immediately repeated after the reset.

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