An air of optimism surrounds a season of change for the Bellerose Bulldogs.
Last year’s division one Carr conference finalist in metro Edmonton high school football and the runner-up in the Tier I (1,250-plus students) provincial north final have high hopes for another winning year with Jason Lafferty as the new head coach and a different lineup that finished 7-4 overall.
“We have a lot of rookies but I feel we can be an amazing team because of the work we’re going to be able to put in and the passion we have,” said an upbeat Bronson Wilke, a Grade 12 inside linebacker, prior to Monday’s practice. “We’ve got a lot of heart and we’ve got a new coach who cares a lot about us and how we are, we’ve just got to put in the work.”
Lafferty’s expectations are simple.
“I want to see guys compete, I want to see guys go hard and I want to see guys fly to the football,” said the Bellerose teacher and former assistant coach with the Alberta Golden Bears. “I really want to see the kids enjoy playing because at the end of the day it’s a game. No one likes losing so we want to try and win.”
Lafferty succeeds Chad Hill, the 2016 and 2017 Metro Athletics Coach of the Year in the Carr who coached the senior Bulldogs for 10 years and was the junior head coach from 2005 to 2014.
The Lafferty era kicked off in Saturday’s 31-6 exhibition loss to the host Raymond Comets. A 40-yard pick-six by Raymond opened the scoring in the first quarter. At halftime it was 21-0.
“For having 3.8 days of practice and throw the kids in there they showed some resiliency and they showed a desire to want to get better and learn. There’s lots of positives,” Lafferty said. “To truly assess it I don’t think it’s 100 per cent fair. You can certainly assess the effort and desire but from a schematic standpoint are we going to change our offence because we only scored six points? No. There are still things we believe in and there are still things philosophically we want to get done this season with the kids we have so that’s not going to change.”
Wilke also viewed the loss as a positive.
“It was a new chance to test our limits and see where we’re at and what we can improve on,” Wilke said. “We filmed it and saw where we’re good at. We can reward ourselves as well as just knowing what we need to improve on.”
On tap is the Notre Dame Cougars of Red Deer and Friday’s exhibition starts at 6:30 p.m. at Larry Olexiuk Field.
“Our goal obviously is we want to win but we want to come into it knowing what we did wrong in the last game and fix that for this game,” Wilke said.
It’s another opportunity for the coaching staff to see how the team is shaping up in preparation for the Sept. 7 league opener against the Ross Sheppard Thunderbirds at 5 p.m. at Larry Olexiuk Field.
“Because we’re so young we’re still trying to find exactly where everyone needs to fit in this puzzle. We do have some idea so we’ll see Friday night how it all plays out. I know we’re all looking forward to getting back on the field just to see them compete again,” Lafferty said.
Last year’s Bulldogs were represented by nine players on the All-Edmonton Carr Team, the most by any team, and the other returnee is Keegan Pawlik, a sturdy Grade 12 defensive lineman.
Travis Heggart, a standout receiver, has transferred to the Salisbury Sabres for his Grade 12 season.
Among the graduating Bulldogs is Quade Kozak, who attended Sturgeon Composite High School. The 2017 All-Edmonton Carr Team quarterback and Haliburton Trophy recipient as the Carr conference MVP will huddle up with the Queen’s University Gaels in Kingston, Ont.
The Bulldogs have about 60 players in camp despite the loss of talent from Sturgeon with the formation of its own football program this year after serving as a feeder school for Bellerose football.
Lafferty expects more players will show up when school starts start as the Bulldogs plan to continue with their junior team for the 14th straight season.
“We’re going to start two or three Grade 10s on the (senior) team so we’re not by any stretch of the imagination a veteran-laden team but we do have some pieces that I do think in a couple of years from now are going to be very, very good,” Lafferty said. “With the Grade 12s there are some very good leaders on the team, guys that showed me in one week that we can count on them.
“I’m still waiting for a couple of kids to elevate themselves both on the field and off the field, but one thing we do have in our locker room is they’re a bunch of great kids.”
When asked if teams might take the new-look Bulldogs lightly this year, Wilke replied: “Honestly, I think they will but we’re going to show them differently.”
The front-runners to replace Kozak’s strong arm and determined running style are Jared Koziol, a Grade 12 Bulldog who sat out last season because of knee surgery after sharing the QB duties on the 2016 junior team, and Tristan Olenick from the bantam St. Albert Palmer 49ers (7-2), Tier I finalists in the Capital District Minor Football Association,
Olenick’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Liam Birch closed out the scoring against Raymond.
“There are some young guys that we’re excited about. Tristan Olenick played very well in the game late in the fourth quarter when he got in. Jordan Howe is a player we’re going to be relying on. Adam Rafat is going to be fine,” Lafferty said.
As for the offensive line, “Everything starts up front so our offensive line coach is working very hard to get those guys to where they know who they have to hit and why they have to hit them,” said Lafferty, while adding that Wilke is going to be “an anchor of our defence,” while Cole Precht is among a returning core of Bulldogs expected to make contributions defensively.
Cory Hannam, a Grade 12 Bulldog, also returned an interception 30 yards at the end of the first quarter against Raymond.
Wilke sharpened his defensive skills at the U17 Team Alberta elite training camp in Maui in August. The provincial team included defensive back Jackson Ganton of the St. Albert High Skyhawks.
“It was amazing. It was really fun,” said Wilke, 17, a Morinville Community High School student. “I learned there’s a lot of things I can improve on as a player. It was also just amazing to see American teams and how they play and how much different they are than we are.”