One week into the 2023 high-school football season, the Springbank Phoenix have already secured as many wins as they did last year.
Opening the 2023 schedule on Aug. 25 against the Bert Church Chargers in Airdrie, the Phoenix coasted to a 20-0 win to start the year strong in the Rocky View Sports Association (RVSA).
For head coach Tyler McRae and his players, the win is hopefully an early indication that Springbank Community High School's football program is on the upswing after a difficult few years of struggling to put wins on the board.
“It was great,” said McRae, of the team's performance against Bert Church. “The team looks really good. We were able to change around where we slot some of our better athletes, just because we have more numbers. We can utilize some of our athletes’ strengths more than we could last year.”
In 2022, Springbank finished with a 1-7 overall record, finishing joint bottom of the seven-team RVSA standings. Their lone win came against the Bow Valley Bobcats of Cochrane (who finished with the same record as the Phoenix) in the division's 'B' playoff bracket.
McRae, who took over the head coaching reins at Springbank midway through the 2022 campaign, called last season a rebuilding year. He said the team struggled to put out a full lineup each week, often taking to the field with with just 25 players – despite an athlete-sharing agreement the school has with Rundle Academy and Calgary Academy.
“We were basically trying to fill slots last year but now we can actually put together a lineup that plays to our strength,” McRae noted. “It was really nice to see on Friday [against Bert Church]. The guys came out and had a great game.”
One setback from the win against the Chargers was an injury to starting quarterback Cooper Dickenson. According to McRae, the Grade 11 pivot was running out of bounds when a linebacker's tackle collided with his arm, resulting in a bone break.
“It’s too bad because he broke his arm last year [too],” McRae said. “He put on about 20 pounds this offseason and was playing a hell of a first half.”
For long-term observers of high-school football in the Rocky View County region, the Phoenix's challenges in recent years can be hard to wrap one's head around. Not that long ago, Springbank Community High boasted one of the top 10 strongest Tier II football programs in the province, as ranked by Football Alberta.
The team finished as the RVSA's runners-up in both 2017 and 2018 behind the perennially strong Cochrane Cobras, and third in 2019. During these years, some of their most talented graduating athletes even received scholarships with U SPORTS university football teams.
But the program was hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic and has been in rebuild-mode since then. In 2021, the Phoenix finished fourth in the RVSA, losing to the Chargers in the division's bronze-medal game. In 2022, the school's football program struggled to recruit enough athletes or coaches to field a competitive team.
Hopefully, according to McRae, those problems are in the past.
“One of my goals, just because we didn’t any representation as far as teachers go at the Springbank school [last year]…was to recruit some athletes for the program coming into this year,” he said.
“We came into spring camp last year and went from ending the [2022 season] with 25 guys and starting spring camp with 50 athletes. I think we dressed 45 players for game one – so there's a big difference there.”
While contesting for the RVSA championship may not be a realistic target at the moment, McRae said a reasonable objective for the Phoenix to strive toward is a top-four finish in the regular season, which would put them in the division's 'A' playoff bracket.
Of course, the head coach noted it's important not to think too far ahead, instead taking it game by game.
“We’re trying to obviously build week to week,” he said. “It would be great to get one of those top four playoff spots to have some meaningful games at the end of the year. I think that’s a goal of ours.
“Obviously Cochrane, George Mac and Cochrane are going to be the three teams that are tough to overtake, but I think if we could get one of the top four spots, that’s a goal of the program this year.”
Springbank's next game will be on Sept. 1 at 4 pm against the Bow Valley Bobcats at Rundle College. The team has a bye next week, and will continue their 2023 campaign on Sept. 15 against the championship-defending George McDougall Mustangs of Airdrie. That game gets underway at 4 p.m. at Rundle College.
For a full schedule of RVSA football, see rvsa.rockyview.ab.ca