By Darryl G. Smart
After the final buzzer Friday in Delhi, feelings of elation and relief poured over Ryder Kinrade, Lucas Fielding, Tanner Simpson-Stone, and their Pauline Johnson Collegiate Thunderbirds teammates.
It is no secret that it has been a long time since the Thunderbirds lifted their helmets in victory. Five years in fact. But on Friday, thanks to a 27-20 win over the first-place Delhi Raiders, they were finally able to hold those helmets up after a victory.
“The win was massive,” Fielding, a fifth-year middle linebacker said. “It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve had at PJ in a long time. There was a little bit of relief that we can win and have fun doing it.”
With the new Athletic Association of Brant Haldimand Norfolk league playing for the first time this year, the Thunderbirds were part of the football realignment, moving over to the varsity Non-CWOSSA division. Prior to this, the Thunderbirds were forced to have junior and senior programs in the old Brant high school loop.
“We’ve always been a good team,” Kinrade, a fifth-year defensive lineman said. “This is varsity so we don’t have to worry about junior and senior, giving us more players. In the old league we were always in trouble knowing we had a lot less players than the other teams. Now we have more depth than ever before and that’s helped.”
It has also led to some unique opportunities for the older players.
“Being able to set an example for the Grade 9 and 10 players and keep them motivated is such a great feeling,” Simpson-Stone, a Grade 12 offensive lineman said.”You’re playing a big role. It really means a lot.”
And those players are all committed to the cause.
“Guys are willing to work,” Fielding said. “Guys may not get as much time as they want on the field but they give it everything they have. We all want to win.”
The three senior players also credit the coaching staff, who have not only been great with the Xs and Os, but have also inspired. Joining head coach John Macdonald, who is a former collegiate standout and CFLer, are former Thunderbirds Dakota Brush and Michael Knevel. Brush had a great collegiate career with Mount Allison University before a career in the CFL. Knevel led the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks to the Yates Cup.
“We’re definitely thankful for the coaches who have come back,” Fielding said. “We all want to listen to them because they’ve done great things. Coach Mac puts so much time into the team. It’s a collective effort. Without our coaches we’re just a bunch of players.”
“I think it’s pretty cool to see people that have succeed after playing at PJ,” Kinrade said. “They’re coming back to help us out. And now that they’re here, we want to show them what we can do.”
The long road to Friday’s victory has been a long winding one for the Thunderbirds. But one the group has felt that has been in the making.
“Our first game ended in a tie (0-0 against Simcoe) and most of us didn’t know what we were doing.,” Kinrade said. “It felt like it was a last minute thing because of how the season came along so fast. In the second game (a 9-6 loss to Holy Trinity) there were a lot of mistakes that cost us the win. In this third game we really put everything together.”
Because of those humble beginnings to the season, the Thunderbirds simply went about business and stuck to the process Macdonald and his staff laid out for them.
“In past years we’d get a touchdown and would celebrate thinking we’re on top of the world,” Kinrade said. “If a team scored on us, everyone would have their heads down. But that’s all different now. If we score, we’re already thinking of the next job to do.”
That was very apparent Friday. Every time the Thunderbirds scored, the celebration was at a minimum, mostly just handing the ball over to the officials after the points were on the board.
“We want to keep everything simple because football is 90% mental, Simpson-Stone said. “Honestly, the secret is assignment alignment and technique. There’s always a mini game between you and the guy on the other side. All we want to do is win those little battles.”
And now that the Thunderbirds got a taste of winning, they want more.
“We aren’t getting ahead of ourselves at all,” Kinrade said. “We just have to stick to what we’re doing and believe in each other. Good things will happen.”
With one more week remaining in the AABHN Varsity Non-CWOSSA Division regular season, the Thunderbirds host the 1-2 Waterford Wolves at 2:30pm, while the Raiders get the bye as they still sit in first place with a 3-1 record.
In the other game Friday, the Wolves edged the 0-2-1 Simcoe Sabres 12-11. The Sabres will take on the Holy Trinity Titans on the road Friday at 11:30am.