Denis Kelly, pictured in his days at WJ Mouat, begins a new chapter Friday as the head coach of East Van's Notre Dame Jugglers. (Ron Hole photo)
Feature High School Football

Denis Kelly: He embraces past, celebrates future in first season as Notre Dame Jugglers head coach

VANCOUVER — Denis Kelly has embraced so many of the innovations which have changed the face of football since the mid-1980s.

Yet as the career of one of B.C.s most enduring head coaches enters yet another new chapter, it’s also correct to say that his belated return to an old-school East Vancouver gridiron hamlet comes awash with full-circle symbolism.

“I think the thing I most took away from the first time I was here is that you need to try to do a few things very well,” said Kelly, who after working as the lead assistant with the Notre Dame Jugglers from 1982-85 returns this fall as the head coach with a Friday (3:15 p.m.) debut against the host and Double-A No. 1-ranked Abbotsford Panthers.

“I learned that you try to settle on a few things, practice them with great repetition, and in doing so, you begin to build the team’s confidence,” adds Kelly, who for the last two seasons coordinated offence for the SFU Clan and St. Thomas More Knights. “It was the repetition and then the reinforcement of skills.”

While never immune from adding bits and pieces of the game’s growing innovations, it’s safe to say that change has come slowly at Notre Dame. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s something to celebrate.

Yet it’s also what makes Kelly’s return to the old Renfrew-area neighbourhood so compelling.

An offensive innovator since the late 1980s when he took the fledgling start-up program at W.J. Mouat in Abbotsford to the top of the provincial heap, Kelly has showcased his flair for the passing game through the likes of talented pivots like Darren Rowell and Steve Goosen.

Yet when his personnel has been ground-based, like it was with backfield phenoms Boseko Lokombo and Maleek Irons, Kelly’s Mouat teams were as dominant as any over the past few decades.

“You have to adjust and understand that things have been a certain way,” Kelly says of re-adopting to the tradition-laden ways of the Jugglers nation. “But on the other hand, you also want to put your own mark on things.”

And thus, as he inherits a senior varsity program hit hard by graduation but coming off one of its most successful seasons in recent memory, the 2017 season will be a perfect way to gauge how skillful he is at cajoling the most out of a senior varsity group which lacks the overall talent of the 2016 Triple A Subway Bowl finalists.


Last season’s heart-and-soul leader, quarterback Steven Moretto, has graduated to life as a baseball collegian at NCAA Div. 1 Sacramento State.

Moretto was a lock to start through his senior season, yet as a nod to the changes that come with just the second coaching change at the school in 39 years, things are not so cut-and-dried at the pivot spot this season.

“I wouldn’t say this is a re-build,” begins Kelly. “We’ll be fine, but we’re trying to find out who our starting quarterback is going to be and we’re hoping over the next week that someone will emerge.”

For the record it’s a three-horse race, with underclassmen Will Clarke, Jerrell Cummings and Matt Glover each bringing their differing skill sets to the table.

Yet clarity remains just beneath the surface for Kelly in so many other key areas, and that’s because, in a truly unique reversal of roles, an early mentor has been pivotal in rolling out the welcome mat.

George Oswald, who led the Jugglers senior varsity from 1977-2010, is B.C.’s most-decorated senior varsity head coach.

Over a 13-year span from 1977-89, Oswald led the Jugglers to nine Subway Bowl finals and seven championships.

That span, of course, includes Kelly’s four-year stint as the program’s lead assistant where he largely coached up the quarterbacks.

Fast forward 32 years to this season, and Oswald, retired but seemingly omnipresent within the Notre Dame football community, has reversed his role, this time assisting Kelly with the quarterbacks.

Think about that for a second, then realize it’s why B.C. high school football is so great.

“He’s got so much experience, even more than I do, and he has seen everything over his long career,” begins Kelly, who for once finds himself the student, and not the teacher.

“He has the great perspective, he knows the entire background on how this program has evolved. But there’s also another aspect, and that is he knows something about every players (Grade 8-12) in the program because he has seen them all since elementary school.”


We’ve talked about the quarterbacks.

On the ground, look for the likes of exciting Grade 11 Teon Alexander-Amour and senior RB/LB standout Brice Pumares, the latter one of a small contingent of Jugglers’ players who contributed last season in the main rotation for former head coach Richard Scott.

Dylan Rachel (WR/LB), Pauljeet Dhami (DE/TE), Richard Nguyen (OL/DL), Matt Glifonea (OL/DL) and Kareem Oborne (LB) are some of the others expected to be key contributors for a team which plays its home opener Sept. 15 at Burnaby Lakes against Surrey’s Holy Cross Crusaders.

Cameron Mah, a Grade 11 LB/OL standout, has been named a team captain, along with Rachel, Pumares and Dhami.

There’s even a Grade 9 on the roster, and he’s not just hanging around for the experience.

Kelly says that 6-foot, 220-pound Xavier Venkataya has been consistent enough to get a very long look as the starter at left guard.

Overall, the Jugglers will be entering a season with a new senior varsity head coach for just the third time since Oswald was a ‘rookie’ back in 1977.

Kelly knows there is much to be done but likes what has transpired thus far.

“The only thing has been our new field,” he said about the fact that the Jugglers were hoping to play games on campus for the first time. “There were some issues with some aspects of it, but we’re hoping to have it ready by the spring.”

Yet regardless of where the games are played, the first year of the Denis Kelly-era will be fun to watch.

Mt. Douglas, New Westminster, South Delta, and of course Vancouver College, await on a tradition-laden Western Conference schedule.

And there’s that word again.


Denis Kelly has returned to East Vancouver, ready to honour it with what looks like the perfect blend of old and new.

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