This season's Tantramar Titans football team will be the youngest, smallest and least experienced of any that has represented the school over the past 41 years, but head coach Scott O'Neal has visions of making a playoff position and of being capable of being "in" every game throughout the campaign. Actually, the Titans may represent the youngest group ever to compete in the New Brunswick High School Football League.
But both O'Neal and guest coach Michael Bohan believe the squad should not be underrated, since it possesses a wealth of talent even though it may be a little light on experience.
Perhaps with this in view, O'Neal has recruited perhaps the best football mind available to bring his skills and knowledge to the program. Peter Estabrooks, a former star with the Titans, a member of the 1984 Mount Allison Mounties Vanier Cup team, longtime defensive backfield coach and subsequently defensive coordinator with the Mounties has been recruited to build a strong Titan secondary, while, at the same time, assembling the third unit - tough special teams.
Recently, Estabrooks was named by this columnist to the all-time all-star Mount Allison team as one of the corners and punt return specialists.
O'Neal realizes the importance strong coaching will bring to his youthful band. He will call the offensive signals and work with veteran David Burns, who will be in charge of the overall defense. Burns served as head coach for more than a dozen years prior to turning the job over to O'Neal three years ago.
Working alongside Estabrooks, Burns and O'Neal will be Charles Lafford, Ben Brown and a few part time assistants.Gone from last year's unit are special team coach Wray Perkin, who will be continuing his studies at Acadia, and Mike Hicks and Peter Hess, who are taking a year away from the game.
The Tantramar graduating class, earlier this year, the smallest in the history of the school with just 89, may be an indication of things to come with dwindling numbers of athletes available to fill the rosters. O'Neal pointed out that it would have been impossible to operate both a high school and bantam team this season due to such a shortage. Last year the Titans absorbed the bantam group since he believes players will develop more quickly with the Titans than even playing more regularly as a bantam.
With only about 35 players reporting for camp, which opened 10 days ago, the total is down by at least 10 from the previous year but equals what has shown up some seasons. And a look at the ages of the youngsters is further evidence of a shrinking enrolment. No fewer than 22 of the 35 attending drills are in either Grade 9 or 10, which means, in other words, they could still be playing bantam. This would leave only a dozen juniors or seniors with 10 of these in Grade 12.
There will be 20 members of the surprisingly strong 2012 team in the lineup this season, with 15 rookies – mostly boys just out of pee wee – joining them. So, it is obvious a good many 13- and 14-year-olds will be seeing plenty of action as they receive their "baptism of fire."
While O'Neal realizes this could be a tough time on the Titan gridiron for his team, he is confident they will continue to demonstrate the traditional Titan "smash mouth" football.
"That's the only way I know how to play the game," says the coach, who earned his spurs as a tough fullback/linebacker for five seasons with the Mounties following a dazzling career with the Titans.
But he is looking ahead to a couple of seasons when he knows the Titans will become a force with which to be reckoned with as the youngsters get their ears pinned back in learning what football is all about.
The coaches must deal with a difficult situation at quarterback. Anton Sianchuk came on like a gangbuster last season to seal the deal and was being looked to lead this year's thrust. But he has not yet been medically cleared to suit up because of a concussion sustained late last season. However, he is with the squad working with the designated successor, Dylan Cormier, who, although still in Grade 10, shows plenty of promise as a fine athlete. Last year he held down a fullback slot, and O'Neal describes him as especially gifted and capable.
Replacements must also be prepared to take over from a huge group who played their final high school game last October. Among this group are such stalwarts as Brendan Melanson-Johnson, Brandon Steeves, Wesley Hicks, Jesse Morice, Riley Morice-Chase and Jason Johnson, who will be in the Mounties camp in another two days.
But O'Neal feels he has a number of people prepared to step up in significant ways to make contributions.
At running back, watch for Cody Weeks to enjoy an amazing year. Ross McCormack, who performed admirably with the provincial under-18-team, is being assigned line duties on both sides of the ball. Joe Kay seems prepared to take the next step in his development and will be tossed the middle linebacking spot, while veteran Zack Haley will do double duty as a down-and-dirty lineman. Dylan Banks guarantees a solid coverage in the secondary and Logan Bunn gives the coaches confidence in their kicking game.
And fans will be better able to enjoy the game at Titan Field because of a couple of improvements. The score clock that has been attached to the school wall will be placed on the front of a new two-storey building in basically the same location. And the field announcer will also work from this spot, offering some protection from the elements, while giving fans a steady update of on-field performances.
There is little doubt but that the Titans will suffer through some growing pains this season but, as usual, will leave everything on the field or pay the consequences from O'Neal who accepts no excuses for failure.
So, even if the going is tough, fans will know in their hearts that the boys will never quit and will do their utmost to make the school and community proud of them.