Reds rejoin senior football loop
In 2019, then Denis Morris principal Dan DiLorenzo made the agonizing decision to cancel the school’s senior football program and rebuild from the junior ranks.
At the time, it was a no brainer with only 14 to 15 athletes attending practice on a daily basis in a sport where attrition is a fact of life.
Fast forward after one season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 campaign will see the Reds reborn at the senior ranks with a varsity football team.
“We had a good year with the junior team and a lot of those kids were turned on to football. A lot of them are coming out because they have been off for a couple of years,” head coach Andy Cecchini said. “And then we have a good group of (Grade) 9s and 10s that want to play. They have also been off and are excited about playing.”
Since practice started last week, the mix of attendees is about 20 junior-aged players and 30 seniors.
“I wouldn’t say we are the most experienced team. That’s for sure,” Cecchini said.
He feels it was an easy choice for the Reds to cancel its junior program and go with a varsity squad.
“It is the struggle with numbers. With 20 juniors, can you make that team work?” Cecchini said. “Now with 50 kids we have no worries about injuries. We have three at every position, we have no worries about fielding a team and that’s the big thing.”
There is a perception Denis Morris has a huge population to pick a football team from but that is no longer the case.
“I don’t think a lot of people know it, but we are a school of 800 kids. They still think it is DM of the 1980s when there were 1,500 or 1,600 students at this school. We are half of that now,” he said. “We are not that big, humongous school any more and to field one team makes sense. Hopefully we can’t be competitive and give the kids a great experience. That is what we are here for.”
Helping Cecchini coach is Steve Balanowski, long-time DM hockey coach Billy McLaren and Antonio De Simone, a new arrival from Saint Paul, where he spent 10 years helping coach that school’s junior team.
The three coaches have been working hard trying to make up for a year of no football.
“I am waiting for a schedule because we are still a long way off from being game ready,” Cecchini said. “In years past, it has been big rush to get ready but this year we are hoping we have time to get them ready. I am hoping the schedule is delayed and I believe that it is going to be.”
The Reds need all the prep time they can get.
“We are taking our time, we are going over safe contact every night and trying to make sure that kids are safe. We are doing basic tackling, basic blocking and conditioning to get them ready to play.”
The team is taking a slow approach to conditioning.
“We started with one lap around the field and we are working our way up to last night when we spent about 10 minutes on conditioning after practice,” Cecchini said. “Tonight (Tuesday), we are going to try and ramp it up and go 15 minutes. We are doing it slowly so they are safe and we don’t have any major injuries.”
He feels the Niagara Catholic Athletic Association will need to be inventive with its scheduling and play this season.
“I am open to anything because it is about getting a team out there, representing DM in a positive way and getting the kids to experience football.”
The response from the Reds players has been excellent.
“It’s great. The kids are excited, they are itching to learn and they are showing up every night which is unbelievable. Every night having 50 kids is just crazy to me.”
It is a far cry from past years at Denis Morris and other schools when getting enough kids out to practice was a challenge.
“I felt we were at a tipping point of losing teams back a few years ago with all the all-star programs going on and kids deciding by Grade 8 or 9 that they were only going to play one sport,” Cecchini said. “Now I feel COVID has changed things where these kids are itching to play again, Yes they are competitive but they just want to be out there playing with their peers, socializing and having fun. And we are certainly making it fun.”
He feels football is an important part of a school’s fabric.
“Every player is not going to be an all-star. I have a son in Grade 10 and it is an opportunity for him to be able to meet other young men, socialize with them outside of the classroom with all different types of people and building relationships,” Cecchini said. “Without that, it’s just being in a classroom or at home in front of a computer and they don’t learn social skills and they don’t develop friendships. I believe they have been drastically missing it over the last two years.”
The Reds have been given a nice equipment boost this season.
“Mr. DiLorenzo on his way out and Mr. (Andrew) Bartley on his way in thought we were due for some new equipment for the football program and they ordered $10,000 worth. It has really helped us a lot in being able to suit up 50 kids. We would have been short of helmets, for sure.”
Daniel Smith, a 12B student, is thrilled to be back.
“It feels amazing. I have been locked in the house for the last year and a half and it feels nice to be back,” the 18-year-old St. Catharines resident said. “It’s not like you got to go out and do stuff every day. You are in the house constantly doing the same thing over and over. It really was hard. You are mostly on your phone and social media.”
Like his teammates, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end, tight end and kicker found ways to keep busy during lockdowns.
“It was going in my backyard and training and stuff like that. Even videos games helped because it gave me an out from everything that was going on in the world.”
But is wasn’t the same as football.
“I missed the team and the atmosphere that surrounds you when you are out here,” Smith said.
Like Cecchini, he feels football is an important part of high school.
“Even though we are obviously not related, we call each other family and it’s being with your family every day,” Smith said. “It is great everything is slowly getting back to normal.”