Obstacles and challenges are nothing new for the St. Thomas More Knights football program.
The regular changing of the guard – where nearly half the starting core leaves to be replaced by a lot of hungry, fresh-faced sophomores – hasn’t put a crimp in their compete level. For the past two years, STM entered the playoffs without one of their on-field leaders.
None of these things are exclusive to the Knights. However, the extra adversity has given those returnees an idea of the journey ahead.
This year, expectations are high, as the squad looks to those second-year returnees and some key junior grads to keep them on the map.
STM head coach Steve De Lazzari expects nothing less but understands why it’s beneficial to be under the radar.
“We like being underdogs, and I think that is not a bad place to be at this stage,” De Lazzari said as the team finished its first week of two-a-day practices. “You look at the (provincial 3-A) rankings, and you see (the Western Conference’s) Vancouver College, Mount Douglas, New West, South Delta – only (No. 3-ranked) Lord Tweedsmuir comes from (the Eastern Conference).”
All of those teams saw valuable players graduate, so the Knights are not alone in needing to fill holes. And while it may on paper appear to be a lighter load for Eastern-based STM, the route to a provincial final crosses many paths. Water finds its own level, as do potential football champions.
Without the skills and leadership of players like graduates Dario Ciccone, Sam Steele and Michael Simone, however, the opportunities for others to take up the torch are there.
You can’t ask any one player to replace a 2018 3-A MVP (Ciccone), a provincial all-star receiver (Simone) and 2017 conference defender of the year (Steele); you just know leaders tend to emerge on their own.
The roster has a number of players capable of rising to those posts, remarked De Lazzari.
“Our strength this year is our (Grade) 12s,” he noted. “We’ve got good depth, valuable experience and good character to continue with, but definitely with (Steele, Ciccone and Simone) gone those are large shoes to fill.”
Begin with standout lineman Kaishaun Carter, the six-foot-two force up front who was voted B.C. High School Football’s Top Grade 11. In his second season with the varsity side, Carter soaked up a lot of what it means to compete at the senior level and was among the province’s best linemen by season’s end.
“He’s a special player,” said De Lazzari. “He’s got good size but he’s very athletic, explosive and powerful. His game IQ is very sharp, and he’ll be making calls from his spot.”
On offence, senior Jack Wagner will slot in as a starting halfback, while Nick Osho, a Grade 11 who played junior and senior last season, will join Wagner in the backfield, as well as on the linebacking core.
Stepping into Ciccone’s spot behind centre will be Anthony De Lazzari. A quarterback with the 5-1 junior Knights, the newcomer has all the qualities to make a smooth transition, remarked the coach – who is very familiar with his potential, being that he’s also his father.
“I’ve coached him for a number of years and you can say he’s unflappable. His focus is on getting the ball downfield,” noted Steve De Lazzari.
“He’s a very cognitive quarterback and a quick study. He can make proper reads and smart decisions, but there will be a learning curve.”
Unlike Ciccone, the younger De Lazzari is a prototypical pocket pivot, who will use his arm to keep the pins moving. He will also have second-year receiver Rickey Parsons as one of his prime targets.
“This is going to be a process as players get comfortable in their positions, but we have the players who can make the adjustments, who are smart and talented.”
Last year, the senior Knights advanced to the quarterfinals before falling 43-21 to Mount Douglas. On the junior side, undefeated STM was bumped out of the playoff picture in the first game, 55-14 by Kelowna. The common denominator was that both those rivals went on to win their respective provincial title.
The preparation has already begun, as STM joined forces with rival New Westminster for a joint practice last week and is spending the final week before school commences in Hawaii, training with fellow Christian Brother-based Damien Memorial High. They wrap up the trip Aug. 30 with a game against their American hosts, who are nearly a month into their season.
“The players understand that it’s a different game (in the U.S.),” the coach said. “We have some catching up to do, but a big part of the trip is the unique camaraderie experience, both as a team together and with (Damien Memorial), who we’ll shadow in the classroom while we’re there.”
By the time the team huddles for its first game in B.C., on Sept. 6 against Notre Dame at Burnaby Lake, they’ll have a broad patch of experience to work with.
“It’s an exciting part of the season, and the goal is always to get better each week,” said De Lazzari.