When the 18 high school football teams that will visit Guelph for the provincial high schools OFSAA Football Bowls Series at Alumni Stadium leave for home, festival organizers hope they will have had the best experience possible.
“We're providing an experience that these kids wouldn't get at the high school level typically,” said Frank Cain, the University of Guelph athletic department’s facility and business development manager. “There are a lot of these schools that are coming that don't have a university facility in their town and they definitely don't have a university facility to our standards.”
The CWOSSA region with convener Johnny Forte and University of Guelph with Cain and event supervisor Brandon Merrick and their staffs are hosting the nine-game, three- day festival. Sports management students of the university’s Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics have also been involved in securing sponsorship, among other things.
“We still have a little bit of work to do, more of the day-to-day stuff that we have to get done,” Forte said after this week’s CWOSSA final at Alumni Stadium. “We've got to worry about making sure we're true to our words with our sponsors. We've got a bunch of stuff for the kids. We've had three University of Guelph students (from the Lang Business School) working with us and they've done a great job of going out and finding some goodies for the kids to take home just to make the experience that much better for the kids.”
“What we decided to do internally was also to include the Lang School of Business, the sports management kids, to give them an opportunity to learn the behind-the-scenes of a larger event,” Cain said. “It's worked out really well. It's been a really good partnership. The Lang students of done a good job of gathering sponsorships, taking over the social media, generating interest, ticket sales as well as they'll be doing the game-day management, too. What a great learning experience for three students from here as well as taking a lot of pressure off the CWOSSA organizing committee which was important because they are all coaches themselves. That allowed them to continue to coach their teams because it wasn't a lot of notice to take on nine bowl games within a period of two months to get organized and promote. It's worked out pretty well.”
“With the amount of stuff I do, it's been quite a bit of work,” said Forte, who coaches both the senior and junior football teams at Cameron Heights in Kitchener. “I also coach wrestling at this time and am also convenor of wrestling, so it's been a lot of work and a lot of sleepless nights lately. I'm looking forward to next week.”
While there is a fee for use of the facility, organizers hope the funds taken in by the festival far exceeds that amount.
“They are paying for the facilities, but the reality is that we're trying to make as much money as we can for the organizing committee to help fund the future of high school football in the area,” Cain said. “Helmets are $500 apiece now so whatever money we can make and clear from this event can hopefully go buy some equipment to keep the players safe to continue to play.”
While teams will be coming from throughout the province, from places such as Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Orleans, Kingston, Courtice, Belle River and Niagara Falls, there’ll be no Guelph school represented. The District 10 champion Centennial Spartans finished a win away from the festival with a loss in the CWOSSA semifinals.
That leaves the CWOSSA champion Jacob Hespeler Hawks of Cambridge and silver medalist Resurrection Phoenix of Kitchener as the most ‘local’ representatives.
“We're all pretty close to Guelph,” Forte said. “It would've been nice to see a Guelph team in here just being in the backyard, for sure. I think this place would've been rocking if we had one of the Guelph teams in, but both teams, the two teams we have in here for CWOSSA, they're going to do a great job representing us.”
“It would've been ideal to have a Guelph school involved,” Cain said. “It would've been great to have Centennial involved, but they didn' win. They were good this year, but they've got a way to go. We've got to keep helping them grow the Junior Gryphon program and then grow the high school program. It all works together.”
Having the festival at the end of November can be touchy weather wise. While it was a nice night for this time of year for the CWOSSA final, it has often been held in snowy conditions.
“The games will go on,” Cain said. “We are prepared to clear the fields if required, but it looks like the weather is in our favour. I've made my call to the gods above to help us with the weather and it's worked out, but we have the equipment and the expertise to make sure that the games continue. Obviously playability and safety is our No. 1 priority for these kids. If it's too much, we'll have to reschedule.”
Gain has a photo hanging on the wall of his office showing staff members shoveling snow off the field at five-yard increments during one of the previous CWOSSA finals held at Alumni Stadium.
“The weather is the one that I can't control,” Forte said. “I just want people to show up, too. I know teams are going to come, but I want the fans to come out just to see what high school football is. I think a lot of people don't think that Canadian high school football is comparable to what we see down in the States.”
But the main thing is the experience the players should have at the festival.
“For the kids, the experience from when they get off the bus to when they get back on the bus will be as close to our combination of our Fryday Night Lights and our varsity games as possible,” Cain said.
The majority of the D10 games were played at Alumni Stadium this season and the crowd at the league final was estimated at more than 2,000, a crowd larger than the final two Guelph Gryphons university games played there this season.
Win or lose, every player at the festival should be going home happy for the experience.
“I believe that's a great way to say it,” Cain said. “I think of some of these kids coming from Thunder Bay or Sault Ste. Marie, they're going to have an experience that they just wouldn't be able to have anywhere else.
“The way they've set up the match-ups as competitive and fair as possible, every game should be a close, good game of football. They'll be able to get back on the bus and say 'this is potentially something I want to pursue as an athletic adventure going forward.'"