Today marks the return of the Football Alberta Senior Bowl, an all-star matchup between the best high school players in northern and southern Alberta.
Some familiar faces from the provincial champion Cochrane Cobras will be on the field, including the south head coach Rob McNabb.
It's been a landmark year for McNab In his 31 years of coaching high school football. He has been named to two halls of fame and shared the high school tier 3 coach of the year award with Ken Polson.
Both McNab and Polson have been named coach of the year before by Football Alberta, but this one was special.
Football Alberta executive director Tim Enger says the Cobras typically walk through their competition to advance to the provincial ASAA championship game, but that wasn't the case this season.
"To not only maintain their level of success but get through some challenges, like the loss to George McDougall and the big fight they had in the league championship, really made them stand out," says Enger. "I mean, they've won this award before, several times in fact, but I think this one is a little special."
Coach McNab has been a leader on the Cobras coaching staff since being recruited from an Airdrie school by mentor Bruce O'Neil. He's had far too many coaching honours to mention here, but this award comes at the end of his teaching career in a season that took molding a raw but talented group into a winning team.
Yet he has helped do it before, back when first joining the program.
"It was such a big swing for me from playing at university and coaching with Calgary Colts to come to high school. But after a while, you just get into it. I think probably the biggest takeaway is just all the relationships you make with the kids."
One of those kids was Tom Knitter, who is now the team's defensive coordinator and is making his second appearance on the South coaching staff in the Senior Bowl.
McNab recalls a returning point came in the early years after being crushed by a Cardston team.
"Instead of sitting back and blaming others, we just looked at ourselves and say hey, we've got to get this going or it's going to be a long haul. We basically learned how to coach football and went at it. We've had great success. The cult has been established here at the high school, and it's just been great."
Helping build that success is a training program that is second to none.
"I've read somewhere that if you pick one thing from another program, you're stealing, and if you take five things, it's research," says McNab. "I think we did some research on different programs around and we took what we needed because we weren't geniuses at that point.
"We said we got to do something better every single year. We mastered the stuff we had, and to get better the next year we added to it. We just kept adding more. That's how we built it to the situation it's at now where the younger coaches would file right in and buy into it, and away we go."
Win or lose, there's always something to learn, he says.
"There weren't a lot of losses in there, but from the ones that we did lose and the ones that we did win, we always learned something. I remember how after we won a provincial championship and we'd all sit down and watch the film and go over and say, well, what can we do better next year to win it again. That's just the attitude we had."
McNab is particularly proud of how he instituted the 'C' for the football team's helmet which has gone on to eventually be a rallying point for the entire school culture.
"I wanted something that would bring our school together. In the end, it was just fabulous how we created that culture of commitment and community. It's seen all over the province and it's respected."
While McNab hasn't officially called it quits yet, he's wisely been letting go of the reins a bit at a time. He says having a succession plan has been top of mind in recently years to ensure the Cobras' legacy continues.
"After I leave, I want this program to get even better."
He appreciates the coaches who come from the community to help, but believes the success of any school team lies with recruiting teachers who are passionate about coaching.
"They're the teachers the players see in the hallways and classrooms every day, and that interaction can't help but improve a program."
It is the second time Ken Polson was named Tier III high school coach of the year by Football Alberta. The first time was in 2018 when he was the co-defensive coordinator.
He's been with the Cobras for 19 seasons and has served as co-head coach for two seasons, focussing on making sure their defense stays stingy.
The Cobras are known for rolling with an equal number of players at each grade level. They take the time to develop the players through each season so they are at their peak in grade 12.
"With the COVID thing, that disappeared," says Polson, "So this year we started with kids who really hadn't played for us before. We had some camps, we'd had a kind of an intrasquad scrimmage, but that's about it."
He believes Shaun Clazie was the only player with any league game experience going into the season. At that, Clazie only played five or six games in grade 10 due to an injury.
"It was quite a difference because we really had to coach, you know, we had to coach from zero and all the things that were in place and expected in the past were not there. So, it was difficult."
That inexperience was noticeable on the field until the players came to trust what they were being taught.
"Once the kids start to recognize that and come together, the team grew, but it was a struggle. We had lots of talented kids, but you know it's one thing to be a talented kid who's a good football player and another to be a good football team."
He believes the turning point was the loss to the George McDougall Mustangs, their first regular-season loss in Rocky View play in a couple of decades. They had a chance to win that game, but he believes they weren't ready.
"Once that happened, I think everybody kind of buckled down, and the focus was much greater for everybody, including the coaching staff."
He looks back with pride at how the team went on to defend its provincial title.
"You know, it's pretty awesome stuff just to see the growth. We've never had a team grow like this before, ever, which is fantastic"
How the coaching staff and players adjusted coming out of the pandemic made this year particularly special.
"We turned it around and said, let's just be better every day, let's focus on the things that we can do and do them better, and everybody took their roles very well."
He says they had an exceptional coaching staff that made their job easy.
"All the other coaches were fantastic and helped the kids grow into what they could be."
While he appreciates the recognition from Football Alberta, it's not why he does it.
He considers coaching the best part of the day and believes it's a view shared by other coaches.
"We just like working with the kids, forming those relationships, and getting outside and having some fun."
"There's a lot of coaches out there that are coaching in circumstances that are not ideal and they do wonderful things with the kids."
Senior Bowl is back!
Today marks the return of the Senior Bowl after two-year hiatus.
On the south team from the Cobras are quarterback Ethan Pickard, running back Shaun Clazie, receiver Carter Church, O-lineman Jacob Patterson, and defensive back Adam Jackson. Tom Knitter is the defensive coordinator for the team.
Adding to the buzz the game is the coaching matchup. Vince Orieux from Holy Rosary High School in Lloydminster will guide the north. McNab and Orieux have coached against each other in the last six ASAA provincial tier III championship games.
The first Senior Bowl was held in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in 1990 and saw the South defeat the North 19-16. Twenty-nine annual games followed, with the South holding a 16-13-1 edge. The one tie came in 2001.