Young Golden Eagles ready to step up
The Thorold Golden Eagles were the class of the Niagara Region High School Athletic Association Tier 2 football league last season.
The Dirty Birds begin 2023 with a sense of unknown.
“We have got a lot of kids who have seen playing time and a lot of Grade 11s who were able to see the field last year but losing our QB is obviously huge,” Thorold head coach Duane Kemp said.
That QB, Mark Suntz, helped Thorold to an unbeaten season against Tier 2 programs in 2022 and took his team all the way to a 33-27 loss to the Tier 1 Centennial Cougars in the championship game. Suntz was named league offensive MVP for his efforts.
The squad also saw the departure of all-star linebacker Parker Lowes and all-star slot Lucas Friesen.
“We lost some key guys but at the same time we have some other kids who are going to step up,” Kemp said. “We are very Grade 11 heavy this year but that’s exciting. It is a long season and we are looking forward to seeing where we end up.”
The team’s excellent 2022 campaign helped with attracting athletes to the program.
“It definitely didn’t hurt,” he said. “Before COVID, we struggled with numbers a little bit but once we came back we have been pretty strong. We had good numbers last year which leads to cautious optimism. We have guys who have been with it, know the system and have seen playing time. They shouldn’t be scared getting out on the field. They will have that confidence which you need to make that tackle, make that catch or whatever it may be.”
Making it to the final will also play dividends in 2023.
“The kids that had the experience of playing in a championship game will have that fire in them.”
With so many Grade 11s on the team, Kemp knows the season will be a work in progress.
“A lot of them know the basics but now it is fine-tuning it. It’s getting that footwork down, getting that hand placement a little bit better and getting a little bit stronger,” he said. “No matter what your team is, the goal is to be better by the end of the season. If we open like we are supposed to against Simcoe, it will be a good building block. They always have strong, physical teams and it will be a really good test.”
The team has two 12Bs and eight Grade 12s in the lineup.
One of those 12Bs, all-star lineman Carter Wilkinson, will be counted on to play a big role on the team.
“He exceeded expectations last year. He came out last year, was the hardest worker and earned a captain’s role just from that hard work and dedication,” Kemp said.
Wilkinson didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to achieve that role.
“I just tried as hard as I could, focused on the game and focused on what we were running. Obviously I made mistakes too but it is about how you react to them. You try them again and as soon as you get it perfect you move on to the next thing, focus on it and show them that you are working hard.”
Wilkinson wants to take his game to another level this season.
“I really want to make sure that I get bigger and stronger. In the positions I played last year, which was offensive and defensive lineman, I was a little bit smaller than the other guys. I wasn’t able to push or work as hard as the other guys.”
He expects to be on the line again this season but is willing to play wherever he’s needed.
“I will do whatever it takes to win.”
It’s not glamorous but he knows lineman are as important as any other player on the field.
“It might not be flashy but the person running the ball wouldn’t have gotten open unless the linemen blocked and the quarterback wouldn’t have got the ball off.”
The 18-year-old realizes his status as a 12B player makes him a valuable commodity on the team.
“I like to focus on teamwork. Football is all about teamwork and if one person is not working everything fails,” the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder said. “That is a responsibility I take on to make sure everyone is doing drills right, make sure everyone is working their hardest because I just want these guys to see a championship.
“I feel we could have a really good team this year if everyone puts in the work and comes to every practice.”
Wilkinson would love to end his high school career with a title.
“I haven’t gotten a championship yet. My Grade 9 year I didn’t play. In Grade 10 there was COVID and in Grade 11 there was no championship. Last year we came so close so and it would be great this year to finally get a championship ring.”