It’s been almost two years since the Creighton Kodiaks’ football team last hit the gridiron in game action. That streak will end Sept. 15 - and the team hopes it can defend its northern Saskatchewan title.
The team started training in late August, with a blend of newcomers and older, experienced players tackling, running and preparing for the season to come.
It will be a different season than others before it - COVID-19 will play a huge role. This season, the Kodiaks will only play against two opponents, the Senator Myles Venne School Huskies from Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the Ahtahkakoop Titans from Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, located northwest of Prince Albert. The Kodiaks’ main rivals, the Sandy Bay T-Wolves and Cumberland House Islanders, are unlikely to come to Creighton, at least at first - the Northern Lights School Division, which oversees both schools, will not allow players to travel for games unless they are fully vaccinated and not enough players are yet to field full teams.
The Huskies will come to Creighton Sept. 15, with all three teams playing a schedule against each other, subject to change.
This year’s Kodiaks team will look much different from the last one that hit the field - most of the team’s old starters either graduated following the season in 2020 or graduated this past spring, having not played a snap as Grade 12s. The pandemic meant that 2019's championship team - with several top players from the Classes of '20 and '21 - is almost all gone and a group of sparingly used rookies will form the team’s new core.
“It made us change our plans, because we kind of had to go from square one in teaching. The Grade 9s that were part of our northern championship team a year and a half ago, they’re now in Grade 11 - and they didn't play. Now they're asked to be full time starters,” said head coach Ryan Karakochuk.
“There's a huge jump there, so we're going to see a big change in that and our seniors have had less of a chance to develop. Now they’re called upon to haul a heavy load.”
Despite that change, the future looks bright and Karakochuk is pleased with what he’s seeing from a new crop of talent.
“We definitely have a lot of players, which is fantastic. You never knew what it was going to be after the layoff. To have 26, 27 kids, that’s a bright future. That's what I'm most excited about. That means the program is thriving and that means the people and the groups that are coming up are excited to play,” he said.
“We have some great seniors, some great leaders, so we’ll see how that incorporates, the young and the old together. Is this our most skilled team? No, but I’m excited to see how we can do it together and produce something special.”
Two of the team’s leaders this year will be fullback and tight end Myles Patterson and middle linebacker Brendan Haley. Patterson has already taken on an off-field leadership role with the club, said the coach.
“Myles has been the best so far at leading that. They’re also keeping the guys accountable when coaches aren’t in the dressing room, which is new for him. I couldn’t be more impressed with the leadership that we asked for from our Grade 12s - I think it’s a product of the leadership they gained when they were in Grade 10 and 11,” Karakochuk said.
Patterson had praise for the young talent, saying they learned the game fast.
“I was optimistic going into the season, curious to see what would happen with a new core. These guys are doing really good. The intensity is there and they’re not scared at all. They’re quick learners. It’s going to be a good season,” he said.
Karakochuk is expecting big things from Haley - and the player has big shoes to fill. Many of the program’s best all-time players have stood where he stands now.
“We’re asking huge things out of him,” said Karakochuk.
“When we’ve had Hayden [Kanto-Lengyel], Noah Dickens, Dean Rainville, Jordan Schanowski, these have been our best players playing middle linebacker and he’s taking that role on and I really hope he can handle it. It’s going to be an adjustment period for him, but he’s the best capable of doing it.”
Haley seems up to the task, saying he relishes the chance to be relied on for the team.
“I think all the seniors have a great shot at being leaders and can teach the young guys new stuff to get them going and go from there,” Haley said.
Other key players will be shifting spots within the lineup. The Kodiaks’ new quarterback is Marcus Kennedy, who previously took practice reps as the team’s backup QB behind Blake Alexander and was the team’s backup before being knocked out of action last season with a shoulder injury. Karakochuk praised Kennedy’s arm and speed, saying the new man behind centre was a quality dual threat.
“He’s going to be phenomenal. He can really run and he’s got a heck of an arm,” said Karakochuk.
“He never got to do reps, but we always had in the back of our mind that he would be a quarterback and I’ve been very, very impressed. He can run, he can throw, he’s tough. We’ve never really had a dual threat like this and he’s a Grade 11 - he’s got two years.”
With Kennedy in the backfield is Noah Olivier, who will move from playing safety to being the Kodiaks’ main running back. Karakochuk called him the team’s “bell cow”, leading the way with the team’s running game.
“He’s never been our running back before - he was our safety before, when we won the championship,” said the coach.
“He’s so tall and strong and fast. That’s always been our best position with the bell cow running the ball, we’re going to see how he does.”
The new team will mean a new style of play, a faster gameplan playing to the group’s strengths.
“We have a lot of speed, but we don’t have a lot of size. We’re going to have to adjust our game calling and we’re going to see some guys play both ways, maybe more than we’re used to,” said Karakochuk.
“It’s unfortunate that those Grade 12s last year couldn’t play because they were a big part of the team, but me and Brendan, Noah Olivier, any senior stepping up. It’s a big role to take on, but it’s good to see and I think we can do it,” Patterson said.
One thing is already certain though - the players are looking forward to their first trot out on the field in-game action.
“It’ll be nerve-wracking,” said Haley.
“It’s going to be a lot different - it’s going to be exciting, that’s for sure,” Patterson said.