Running back Ben Cottrell of the St. James Lions has been the offensive star of this year’s shortened District 10 high school football season.
He scored a pair of touchdowns in last week’s semifinals to bring his total to 10 in four games and he’s been part of the reason the Lions are the league’s only undefeated team.
But he almost didn’t play for St. James this year.
“It was a privilege, honestly, but I was actually supposed to move to Arizona this year because of high school football,” he said during a video chat. “I wasn't sure if it was going to run up here so I was planning on moving down south. Those were my plans, but it didn't work out so I stayed up here and I was blessed to play football up here. I'm happy that it ran. It was better than nothing, but we still had a couple of complications. Games got cancelled, but it was better than nothing.”
The season started two or three weeks later than normal and a planned-for four-game regular season got cut down by a game due to poor field conditions caused by rain one week.
The season is to wrap up Friday afternoon when the Lions host the defending champion John F. Ross Royals.
The offence for St. James has been heavy on a running attack with Cottrell getting the majority of the carries and that isn’t likely to change in the championship match.
“I'm not giving out any hints for the other team,” Cottrell said.
This season was the third with the Lions for Cottrell, who’s in Grade 12.
“This year's been a lot better than my previous years just because I've grown and I'm stronger and I've developed a lot,” he said. “My Grade 9 year I didn't play too much, but I was one of the only Grade 9s actually playing football, starting on the team. In Grade 10 Tanner Nelmes, he left, so I stepped up and I was playing running back in Grade 10 and that was alright. We went to the D10 championship and had a good game but didn't win, unfortunately. Now we're back again this Friday to hopefully catch a dub.”
That the final is against Ross gives Cottrell and the Lions a little extra motivation. The same two teams met to decide the previous D10 champion two years ago.
“Oh yeah, this means a lot,” Cottrell said. “This is a big game. This is history right here because of the last year. They beat us 32-3 or something, so this is going to be a statement game for us.”
While there wasn’t a high school tackle football season last year, Cottrell did get some football action.
“I played some flag football in July and in August I played for the Cambridge Lions for a couple of weeks. That was pretty good.”
Football isn’t Cottrell’s only sport as he also competes in Olympic weightlifting.
“I've been competing since I was about eight years old,” he said. “I've been training since then, my dad's been my trainer. And I've been to lots of competitions, been doing really well. In the last year I was supposed to be going to nationals, so I should have placed there but it got cancelled because of COVID. It's still a possibility, but football's contradictory – in the same season. We have provincials happening on Dec. 8 and I just don't have a lot of time to train for it.”
He is still planning on competing, but he doesn’t figure he’ll get great results.
“If I had a lot more time to prepare for it, I'd probably do a lot better,” Cottrell said. “During COVID I was training the whole time and that's why I was doing so good at weightlifting. That's why I was easing into provincials and I was going up, maybe even into nationals. That would've been really cool, but unfortunately it didn't happen.”
Of course weightlifting also helps with football. He’s six feet tall and weighs 220 pounds.
“The Olympic weightlifting that I do, it really helps with power and strength and that's what I'm all about,” he said. “Getting super strong and super powerful, that really transitions into football nicely.”
He also plans to gain at least 10 pounds during the football offseason.
“That’s what I'm aiming for -- and getting faster at the same time,” he said. “It's not just eating, it's not just food, it's mostly muscle.”
That weight won’t be put on due to trips to fast-food outlets.
“I try to stay away from that stuff.”
That could be bad news for the D10 opposition if Cottrell decides to return to St. James for a Grade 12-plus year.
“That is a big possibility,” he said. “I just have to figure out what's happening with American schools and how to get recruited down there. Maybe even getting my green card with my sister in the States so that might take a little while – lots of factors playing into that, but I just don't know yet.”
His sister lives in Texas, in San Antonio, so he could end up going there.
“I lived down there for two years when I was younger and I really want to go back there,” he said. “It's great down there.”
That would mean a switch for the three-down Canadian football game to the four-down U.S. version.
“I've played it before, but I can't remember it too well, though,” Cottrell said of four-down football. “Honestly, I like the four-down football a lot better than three-down football because it gives you an extra chance to get out there. Three-down it's like you're in, you're out and that's it. Four down gives you another chance.”
But right now the focus is on three-down football and the D10 final with St. James.
“Our team this year is actually a lot bigger than in previous years,” Cottrell said. “We came out in really large numbers and super great energy. I've never seen it before. It was great energy, great numbers out, everybody was really competitive, everybody's backing everybody up. We've got great leaders on our team. We've got great coaches. Although we don't have a lot of coaches, we've got great coaches. They keep us on our feet and they keep us working hard and that's great.”
While the championship game would normally be the seventh game of the season for the combatants and the winner would get at least one more in the CWOSSA playoffs, this year’s game will be the fifth of the season for St. James and sixth for Ross. And it’ll be the end of the season for both as they will not advance to the CWOSSA playoffs.
“That is quite disappointing,” Cottrell said. “Five games in a season, personally in my opinion, is not enough for an actual season, especially for people trying to get recruited. People need game film. One of the games was cancelled and some games aren't recorded. It's just so hard. Personally, trying to go to the States, it is very difficult to try to get recruited.”
That aside, the Lions are buoyed by the way they have progressed in the short season. They’re not at the level they would normally be at for the league final, but they’re not far off.
“Our coach was telling us most of the season that we've been doing great, but we've been sleepwalking a little bit,” Cottrell said.
“We're just getting to the point where we're waking up and we're really coming together. Our chemistry is looking really good, but we're still not quite there yet, but we're still doing good. That just shows you what we can do as a team. I'm excited to see what happens.”