Four Cochrane high school alumni football players are in camp for the Calgary Colts who are continuing to prepare for their season opener against the Edmonton Wildcats this Saturday.
Bow Valley Bobcats alumni Brad and Nathan Hillier and Scott Haigh and the Cobras Luke Kruger all have been in camp trying to crack the roster of the junior football team.
The size of the camp has grown in recent years. Four years ago there were just over 60 players reporting to camp; this year there were over 150 and finding enough equipment to dress them all was a challenge. Late last week the roster was cut to 115 and by Saturday they'll be carrying 86 players.
Head coach Matthew 'Snoops' Blokker has helped return the club to its past glory and has recently signed an one-year extension to his initial three-year contract. He has seen the excitement return to the Colts program and is impressed with both the commitment of the coaching staff and the talent pool he has to pull from to reach the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
"So far we're pretty happy," says Blokker. "There's a little more excitement about our program now in and around Calgary. We're getting more talented young guys that want to be a part of it. A lot of credit goes to our organization and our coaching staff for working so hard these past years and to the players that have played and moved on. They're the ones that are passing on the good word and they're our best recruiters."
"All that said, we have to win a championship here to be that elite team we can be really proud of."
Blokker speaks highly of the players seeking a spot on the team from Cochrane and Airdrie, including the Hillier brothers, ex-Dino Haigh and Cobra Kruger.
When you mention Nathan Hillier to the training camp staff, they know who you're speaking of.
"He watches more film than any one else. His brother is a close second."
Both Hillier brothers were key players on the Bobcats and this spring runningback Brad appeared in the Senior Bowl.
"He's a tremendous athlete and he's a competitor," says Blokker. "He's one of the hardest working guys on our team and he's already proving that. I think he has a great future and I think he's going to continue to grow and help this team. He might even have a chance right off the bat to help us out, but his future looks really good."
Still, part of the trick is to help the players keep their pigskin dreams alive.
"We have so many first year guys that are talented and we want to develop them and want to make sure they still have the opportunity to keep their goals alive because, to me, that's what junior football is all about; helping to get these guys to the next level."
Even when Blokker was coaching the VI Raiders in Nanaimo and Victoria Raiders and along the way became the winningness coach in B.C. junior football, he knew Calgary was an important football hub.
"People don't realize Calgary is the most recruited area in all of Canada and I know that from being in B.C. how important it was to be here to recruit. Now being here as a coach, there are players that come here that are being recruited by seven, eight different universities and six or seven different junior programs. It's not a hidden gem anymore, it's the real deal and everybody is here trying to get a piece of Calgary. So to have players who want to stay and be a part of our program that's saying a lot and we're excited about it."
Right now, though, the focus is game one against the Wildcats. Kick off is 7 p.m. at McMahon Stadium in a rare Saturday night appearance.
The Colts four-game home schedule also includes a visit by their arch rivals, the Saskatoon Hilltops, on Sept. 17 and the London Beefeaters, of the Ontario Junior Football League, on Sept. 24. The Edmonton Huskies are here on Aug. 27.
The Colts finished second in the Prairie Conference last season with a 7-2 record, just shy of the Hilltops 8-1 record. They beat the Hilltops in their regular season only to lose to them in the conference final.