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Frustrating season also rewarding for junior Grenadiers

July 30, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

That first practice of a season, when a coach really can’t be sure of who he will find in the gymnasium — who will be back; who are the new people; who among them can, or ever will, be able to play — is a time of both apprehension and anticipation.

At the beginning of this junior football season, it didn’t take Mark Magee long to figure out where he stood with junior varsity Kingston Grenadiers.

“We had a 50-50 ratio of Grade 9 to Grade 10 players,” Magee said. He didn’t have to be reminded how that compared to the composition of the team that last year went to the conference final. “We had 51 kids in Grade 10 and three Grade 9s,” he said.

The implication was clear.

“This is a really high level of football,” Magee said, “and it’s highly unusual for young teams to be successful.”

In that sense, the 2-6 record with which the Grenadiers would ultimately end their season might have easily been predicted. Sometimes, though, success is measured by things less tangible than victories and playoff berths.

“It was a frustrating season,” Magee said, “but it was a rewarding season.”

For the players, that reward came from winning twice after an 0-3 start, including a win over playoff-bound Niagara, and scoring more points against both Ottawa and Cumberland, the top two teams in the Wettges conference, than anyone else.

For the coaches, it came from watching a group of young players with not a lot of what Magee calls “football IQ” get better.

“We figured it would be a challenge, based on the fact that we had a youthful team,” he said. “Give the kids credit. They practised hard, they played very hard, and they didn’t seem to get discouraged. They seemed to learn a great deal and they did show improvement, and in anything you do it’s always helpful to get better when you work hard at something.”

It was around the midway point of the season, Magee said, when the players’ progress began to manifest itself on the field.

“The kids started to learn about the game and understand why they were doing things, rather than just doing them,” Magee said. “Sometimes when you have the answer to the questions it makes you a better player.

“At the beginning they were learning so much new stuff they weren’t playing, because they were thinking so much. In the second half of the season they started to understand, and as a result of their understanding they were playing, instead of thinking. At the end we were a pretty well oiled machine that could compete with anybody.”

As an example, Magee chose quarterback Tanner DeJong, a young man possessed of a tremendously strong arm who at the beginning of the year was eager to show it off.

“He got to the point where he understood that there’s more than the deep ball to a football game,” Magee said. “You have to learn ball control and he started to understand and make some actual reads of the defence, rather than just getting up there and trying to throw it as far as he could and hopefully make a play.”

It wasn’t just the quarterback who began to show such development. On defence, Harry Robinson, Jonah Johnson and Cam Hebert were outstanding players at the start of the season. “They changed,” Magee said. “Those guys started out as strong players but they helped to mold the unit to be a little bit better. That’s just from understanding the game and understanding the concept of playing within a scheme.”

Which is why, the record notwithstanding, Magee says he found the season gratifying.

“As a coach you never know what you’re going to get,” Magee said. “Every now and then you get a group that’s way above the curve, and then other years you get groups that haven’t exceeded anything and there’s nothing really spectacular about them … it’s just a good group of kids who have a lot to learn.

“Obviously the wins and losses weren’t where we wanted them but nothing’s ever guaranteed with wins and losses. You can only control the effort that you put in, as a coach and as players, and I thought our players put in a fantastic effort every practice. They played as hard as they could. It just wasn’t meant to be this year.”

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