If you happened to be headed south on the Coquihalla last Friday morning, somewhere in the range of 20 minutes outside of Merritt, then maybe you witnessed first-hand what one venerable B.C. high school football coach so passionately labels “… one of those moments along the journey.”
There it was: A school bus from Kelowna Secondary, complete with the entire KSS Owls varsity football team and the rest of its traveling party, pulled off safely to the side of highway while it tended to a most ill-timed emergency.
“We blew a tire,” recalls Owls’ head coach Chris Cartwright earlier this week by phone. “We had just turned off at Merritt to the Coquihalla and all of a sudden we hear this loud pop. Boom. Two-hour delay.”
With the clock ticking on a 3:30 p.m. kick-off in Abbotsford, Cartwright knew there was no time to waste.
So after roadside assistance was summoned, he shifted his team into their own unique kind of pre-game preparation.
“I said ‘OK guys, pull all of your stuff out now, get changed,’” Cartwright began. “So the kids were all getting changed on the side of the road. Then when they got back on the bus, our trainer, Marcus Glowacki, got all of the guys taped up so that when we got to Abbotsford, we could just get right out there.”
When they finally arrived, it was a quick 30-minute warm-up ahead of a newly-adjusted 4 p.m. kick-off, and just to show the Owls were no worse for wear, they managed to claim their first victory of the season, 42-0 over the Panthers.
As we hover somewhere around the midway mark of the 2021 B.C. high school football season, rife with appreciation and reminders of all the great things this game brings coming off of 2020’s cancelled season, it’s so often times moments like those which endure far longer than the memories of the actual games themselves.
Thankfully, coaches like Cartwright have never lost sight of that.
“You know, getting off that bus after facing adversity and then getting a win… that adds to the story,” he explained. “When we talk about adversity, we always talk about it being a part of our story.”
There was losing its season opener 36-0 to Notre Dame in a torrential downpour back on Sept. 17, then the next week back home at the Apple Bowl, giving G.W. Graham its best fight of the season before faltering late in a 27-23 setback. And all of that was followed by a 45-8 loss at home to the powerful Terry Fox Ravens in which the team started strong but just ran out of gas.
When it’s pointed out to Cartwright that those teams are all undefeated on the season heading into play this weekend, and that they occupy the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 positions in the latest Big 5 Triple A rankings, he chuckles in explaining that Kelowna had also been originally been scheduled to play the undefeated, No. 1-ranked, defending B.C. champion Vancouver College Fighting Irish as well.
As it stands, the 1-3 Owls, on the road again Friday to play a vastly-proved Centennial Centaurs’ squad in Coquitlam, can say that they have played the toughest schedule in the province this season.
“It’s been a big learning journey, and as I have talked to our boys, I think there is no doubt in our minds that we can compete with these teams,” Cartwright continues. “I think that our Grade 12s are learning through the process of trying to discover their identities.”
Not to brand the Owls entirely unique in that situation, but you can’t discount the impact that player-to-player mentorship can have when the veterans are able to take younger players under their wing for that all-important first season of varsity football.
“With the Grade 12 kids we had on this team in 2020, kids like Nate Beauchemin and others, I really think our (current Grade 12s) missed out on a big year with them, that first varsity year and its full learning process,” agrees Cartwright.
To that end, as everyone does their best to regain continuity following a lost season, Cartwright sees his senior leadership group, including players such as Everett Schmuland, Evan Fitchett, Jack Nyrose, Jaeke Schlachter and Joey Howroko, all preparing the next class of Owls to do more of the same in 2022.
“We had a small practice (on Thanksgiving Day) as much to say ‘Listen guys, there is a spark here, and it came from our win,’” continued Cartwright. “As a coaching staff we’ve preached making sure that kids learn how to believe, because that is a big thing. And that’s why the mood on the bus ride back home last week was so great. Not only did we get a win but every kid got a chance to contribute. They all felt a part of it.”
So even though the Owls aren’t currently a part of the provincial rankings and are fighting hard just to get on a two-game win streak, Cartwright isn’t worried.
In his mind, there is no time like the present to turn the team’s entire fortunes around.
“We always seem to take a couple of weeks to find out who we are,” he says. “We would love to have this group come right out of training camp like a lot of other teams and just be ready to go, go, go,” he adds. “But there is something about learning life lessons together through football, about having to grind it out to find our success.
“Sure, it can be frustrating, seeing the potential we have and it not showing on the field, but I am just grateful that we can have life-changing conversations with our players and then have them experience it through football. That’s our story, and that is what’s special about high school sports.”
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