Two-way player Jackson Leshuk of the Centennial Spartans was waiting to hear the name of this year’s winner of the Fitzy, the Nick FitzGibbon Award for the most
outstanding player in the local District 10 high school football league, be announced at the annual awards luncheon when he almost couldn’t believe what he heard – his name.
“I’m extremely surprised, probably the most surprised I've been at the outcome of an award ever,” the Grade 11 Centennial CVI student said. “I just did not see it coming at all. It was just a crazy feeling to hear my name get called.”
Leshuk was the middle linebacker for Centennial and also started the season at running back before moving to quarterback to guide the offence halfway through the regular season.
“I played middle linebacker last season and this season,” the 16-year-old said. “I've played (defensive) line my whole life and then the coaches were 'Do you want to try quarterback?' And I was like 'Sure.' About midway through the season they decided to start me and then we went on that run. I've been a defensive player my whole life. This was my first year on offence, really.”
“We saw a little bit of his ability in (Junior Varsity) this past spring,” Centennial head coach Zach Pollari said. “The kid we had playing JV got hurt and we'd heard that (Leshuk) could throw the ball so we kind of tested him out there and he helped run our offence in JV.”
That experience and Leshuk’s play in the spring/summer league led to more of the same in the high school loop.
“This fall, he's a tenacious linebacker and defensive player and we were going to use him to run anyway,” Pollari said. “Just as the season progressed, we thought some of the things he gave us, especially his running ability, would put us in a good position to score some points so that's where we ended up.”
Leshuk, who will be back with the Spartans next fall, deflected credit for his season and the award to his teammates.
“My (offensive) line, they also took home two awards for rookie of the year and lineman of the year, Manraj (Khaira) and Colton Beisel,” Leshuk said. “But it was every guy on that line. They just made my life so much easier. They created these massive lanes for me to run through and, overall, just the team itself supporting me and believing in me and allowing me to do my best.”
Centennial finished the regular season as the first-place team thanks to winning the tie-breaker needed to separate the three teams that finished with 4-1 records. St. James Lions were placed second and the eventual champion Bishop Macdonell Celtics were third.
Bishop Mac scored a touchdown in the final minute of the championship game for a 16-13 victory over Centennial, the second consecutive league final to be decided by three points (Centennial defeated St. James 22-19 in the 2022 final) and Bishop Mac’s first title win since 1987.
“It didn't go how we wanted it to go in the end, but I think we're a really good team and I think we have the ability to go next year as well. A lot of guys are going to be coming back,” Leshuk said. “But I was just really proud of the guys. They put in a lot of heart and a lot of effort and maybe it didn't end how we wanted it to, but our journey was amazing and I couldn't have been happier with the guys I got to spend it with.”
A championship game usually brings a lot of pressure, but Leshuk didn’t notice it.
“I didn't really feel the pressure going into that game,” he said. “I felt all I was going to do was my best and whatever my best is, I'm going to be happy with the outcome. I gave it my all that day and it wasn't enough, but, you know, I wasn't stressed out. I knew if I gave it everything that I had, I'd be satisfied in the end.”
Leshuk drew on his defensive experience when at quarterback for the Spartans.
“When I go out there, I can see what the defence is looking at and it allowed me a lot of the time to make my own calls,” he said. “When I'd see something, I'd say 'Look, we're doing this.' Often it would hit and it would work. In the championship, it worked on my longest run of the year. I just called my own number because I saw what they had.”
“He's such a good, strong character kid, hard worker, coachable,” Pollari said. “Putting those pieces together, he just has such a strong desire to do well. In a sense, like any good football player they want to put the team on their back and I think as he progresses, he'll get better and better at doing that.”
The championship match at Alumni Stadium, the main home of D10 football, drew the second-largest crowd of the season. The largest was on the opening day of the regular season when Centennial and the Ross Royals clashed there in the night game.
“The championship, I was mostly focused on just winning the game. In the first game, man, seeing that crowd, it was ridiculous,” Leshuk said. “Looking up to the crowd and seeing it completely filled with people for a high school football game in Guelph, it was an amazing thing to see. The sport's really growing here and it's really starting to develop a fan base.”
The league’s major awards were split between the two championship-game combatants. Centennial’s Beisel was the rookie of the year and Khaira was the MVP
lineman. Bishop Mac’s Marco Piccioni, last year’s winner of the Fitzy, was the defensive MVP and Sam Shoniker was the offensive MVP.
The following are the league’s all-stars who were also honoured at the luncheon:
Centennial – Colton Beisel, Manraj Khaira, Nathan Laskowski, Logan Leger, Jackson Leshuk, Lucas Medulun, Shai Scott, Liam Smith, Matt Stam, Cam Viveiros.
Bishop Macdonell – Ethan Malone, Philip Oates, Daniel Patrick, Marco Piccioni, Sam Shoniker, Evan Verdun, Ryan Wolf.
St. James – LeMalachi Betton, Peyton Cummings, Braden Dixon, Noah Donnelle, Owen Ellis, Caden Henry, Evan Nikolasevic.
Ross – Jevon Faulknor, Lukas Fraser, Liam Kingsbury, Troy MacDonald, Drew McQueen.
Lourdes –Treyvon Lewis, Ashton Phillips, Cody Walker.
Guelph CVI – Milo Hastings-Misanchuk, Mateo Landaverde, Jackson Whate.