Earl Marriott Secondary football coach Michael Mackay-Dunn would prefer to forget all about last season.
It was, by nearly any measure, more trying, more stressful, than any other season – save for perhaps the football program’s inaugural year in 2005.
But unlike that first season, when most issues arose simply because building a program from scratch is never easy, last year’s struggles were far more difficult for Mackay-Dunn, and others, to stomach.
The senior team began last season with 25 players – fewer than most other teams – and injuries quickly took their toll, to the point where, after two lopsided losses last October and with the team’s roster dwindled to the bare minimum, Mackay-Dunn cancelled the rest of the season.
“We just didn’t have the numbers, didn’t have the kids to put on the field,” the longtime coach told PAN at the time. “If you don’t, you start having to put kids in positions (on the field) they aren’t comfortable with, and then it becomes a safety issue, and I will never put my kids in a position where they’re going to potentially be hurt.”
And off the field, too, the Mariners couldn’t escape even worse news, as former coach Bryan James – part of the coaching staff during that 2005 season – died just before Christmas, after collapsing at an office party.
But while Mackay-Dunn admits now that he had concerns that the program would fold for good, the school’s teams have all returned to the gridiron.
The numbers are still not quite where Mackay-Dunn would like, but he’s enthused by the participation in the Grade 8 and junior varsity ranks, which bodes well for the senior squad down the road.
This year, the Grade 8 Mariners are playing at the AAA level, while the juniors compete in AA. The senior team will play this season at Tier 2 – a developmental league – though they still play exhibition tilts against top competition.
“We’re not (Vancouver College), with 50 or 60 or more kids. I wish we were, but we’re not. But I tell you, the numbers might be light, but we have a lot of kids with potential,” Mackay-Dunn said.
“There were some dark days. Days where I thought we’d pack it in, but I’ve never quit on anything in my life, and so much energy went into getting this program up and running, I didn’t want to see it stop. We worked too hard for it.”
He says participation numbers continue to grow on the school’s younger teams as students become interested in the sport, and he doesn’t expect last year’s troubles to plague the team again.
“Last year, we had some injuries, some discipline issues, some other things – it was not what we wanted,” he explained.
“But we’ve come in this year and made the kids more accountable, and I really think we’re back on track.”
The school’s three squads have certainly been busy in the season’s first few weeks.
On Sept. 7, the senior Mariners hosted Rutland at EMS, while the junior team hosted G.W. Graham, and the following Friday, both teams went on the road to Kamloops for games against Westsyde Secondary.
After returning home from Kamloops late Friday, 45 players – along with coaches and other chaperones – turned around and headed for Seattle early Saturday morning, for a trip to the University of Washington, to watch the Huskies take on Portland State in NCAA football action.
Last week was even busier, as the senior team played the Rick Hansen Hurricanes in Abbotsford Wednesday before hosting Howe Sound Friday afternoon.
“Only some idiot like myself would come up with this schedule,” laughed Mackay-Dunn.
Of course, a busy gridiron schedule beats the alternative, which Mackay-Dunn realizes.
“It’s a very busy two weeks, that’s for sure… (but) I’m re-energized, I really am. We just have to continue to promote football and keep growing.”