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Niagara Storm Varsity Football Program gets Major Boost from Canada Prep Academy

James Ryan

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Timo Cruz (character) from the movie Coach Carter (IMDb 2005)

This past week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with two brothers, Matt and Alex Hill.

Matt is currently coaching with Canada Prep football academy out of St. Catharines, Ontario, and he has recently been appointed as the new head coach for the Varsity Niagara Storm (OFC) summer youth football program.

His younger brother, Alex, is going into his second year as a coaching assistant with the Niagara Storm, and he recently spent this past season playing as a quarterback on the Hamilton Hurricanes (OFC-CJFL) junior football squad.

Together, they made for quite the interesting interview. Please enjoy.

James Ryan: I’m here with Matt and Alex Hill, both coaches with the Varsity Niagara Storm. So Matt, let’s start with you; how long have you been involved with the Storm?

Matt Hill: This is my second year with the Storm. Last year I was with the Junior Varsity team, and now this year I’m moving up to Varsity.

JR: Why the desire to move up? You had already established yourself as the JV head coach; we interviewed last year. I know you had big plans for Junior Varsity, and now only one year later, you’re moving up. What’s your motivation for the move?

MH: So basically, Sue and Alonzo, who are kinda running the program now, they approached me in the summer, and you know, obviously, I’ll get it out there . . . our JV record, we had a lot of big plans, and our season didn’t go as planned, but we had a great year, the kids all developed, we have our strong core of really good players that really developed coming back, and most of the JV team is now graduating to Varsity. I’ve always seen myself at Varsity. I thought it’d be good to get a year at Junior Varsity as a head coach. Now moving up to Varsity, when they approached me, I knew right away that I had the support cast around me to help coach; Geoff McArthur from Canada Prep, who played as a wide receiver at the University of California with Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers QB), and Marshawn Lynch (Seattle Seahawks RB); he’s gonna be coming on board to help as our Offensive Coordinator. Of course, my brother Alex Hill will be an assistant coach, Phil Constantini will be our Defensive Coordinator, Justin Martin will be our linebacker coach, Joe Fontana will be our D-Line coach, and Mike Venneri will be our defensive backs coach. Plus a whole bunch of new coaches are coming up; it’s been a smooth transition. I’ve always wanted to be up at Varsity. This past year I was coaching for Canada Prep, which is a Varsity level team, so that’s kind of the age that I want to be at. I took a transition year at JV, so now I think we’re ready for Varsity.

JR: Sounds great. Now you mentioned Geoff McArthur, who’ll be coming on board as your Offensive Coordinator, and Geoff of course is the Head Coach of Canada Prep. Is that correct?

MH: Yes, correct. He’s the Head Coach of Canada Prep . . . I’ll get it out of the way; what he likes everyone to know – the truth. This Canada Prep program started about three years ago; it kinda fell on its face. Someone else was running a bit of a scandal, and Geoff was just kinda there to coach, so he had nothing to do with the behind the scenes stuff. He saw the need for this program, and kinda took things over with Mr. Patrick Fife, who is the Principal of the program, and now three years later they’re still running, and I can tell you first hand, as I coached with them this past year, that I was involved with the best football games that I’ve ever been in, in my entire life. We played the 4th ranked team in America down in Ohio, we played in front of 10,000 people, Friday Night Lights, towns shutting down – it was an amazing experience. Geoff’s resume speaks for itself. He was drafted to the NFL, and if an injury hadn’t kept him back, he’d still be playing there. He played alongside many great athletes. He’s coached at every level of football that you can imagine. I don’t think you could find another coach with his resume in Canada, let alone anywhere, so we’re really excited to have him on board. His experience, his intensity – he’s one of those young-style coaches where the kids really love him. I’ve seen it here working with him. The players just feed off of him. So I think he’ll be a great addition to our staff.

JR: Wow, awesome! It sure sounds like it. So right now you’re in the midst of training for the upcoming 2015 season. I mean, it’s very early. We’re still in December prior to Christmas. It’s usually not until the New Year that teams start working on off-season training programs, so what are you offering right now for kids who want to train in the off-season?

MH: We started up a program; a lot of the kids when they found out I was going to be taking over Varsity, they started hitting me up for information. Unfortunately, last year, Varsity had a tough go. They had some forfeits. Their numbers were down, but a lot of good kids were out there, so I hope we get a lot of those kids back. So we knew we had to change things. It was the same thing when we entered into our JV year, we had to do a one-eighty, so we’re looking at doing that again this year. When kids were hitting me up to start training, luckily from coaching at Canada Prep, we have the facility here. We have a weight-room, a gymnasium; so we can get these kids in here twice a week and we’re gonna run it until February. Obviously we’re gonna take a break over Christmas for a bit, but we’ve got kids lifting weights, we’ve got 300-pound linemen out here that have never worked out in their life – I’m really excited to see what they’ll look like in eight weeks, so again, it was kind of a recruiting tool, but also, these kids want to work, and that’s what I keep telling everyone in Niagara. There’s so much talent in Niagara – Niagara could probably host three competitive teams, and whether it be OFC or OVFL, the talent right now is split. I think anyone will tell you that. They’re both great leagues. I think to be playing in either one of them is a privilege for these kids. So the talent’s there, they just need to work on it, and again, you’re right, I don’t think there’s anyone else working out right now. We know we’re behind the eight ball. We know we have an uphill battle to fix things up at Varsity, but that’s why we’re starting now. Like I said, when we took this job on, I knew it was either all or nothing, and this isn’t something we can half-ass, so we gotta really work at it, so that was kind of the idea.

Alex Hill: We’re always looking for new kids that want to train. If there are any kids in Niagara that want to come out in the New Year, we’d love to take on new kids, new projects, and show them how we are as coaches. They can learn, see our style, and if they like it, maybe they’ll want to spend the summer with us, which is what we hope for.

JR: So right now, you’re training two days a week – Saturdays and Tuesday nights, and that’s going on for eight weeks. Then what? Where will you go from there?

MH: So from there, what we’d probably like to do is give them a two week layover. I think our training runs right up until just about mid-February, so then we’ll give them a two week layover as a rest period. Hopefully they’ll take advantage of that, or if they’re working out still – great, but about a two week rest period, and then it looks like March we’ll be starting our official Niagara Storm training camp.

JR: Ok, great. And how have the numbers been so far?

MH: The numbers have been great. I think right now, we have on paper about 40 at camp. Of the 40, I could tell you right now that 35 of them are playing Storm. And that’s like you said, it’s before Christmas. Last year, our camp – I think we started just before Christmas, and we were lucky to get 20 players out. The New Year came up and BOOM!, the numbers flowered. And of those 35 or 36 that are planning to play Storm – I should also mention that that’s not including the six or eight Canada Prep players who are going to be playing for the Storm this year as well. Of course, they’re on their own workout routine right now, so they’re not really with us just yet, but we’re easily up to 40 already. Ideally, I’d like to see 50 or even 60 at the next training camp.

JR: Where’s this enthusiasm, this interest, coming from? If you look at Varsity, albeit it was a completely different team this past summer with a completely different coaching staff; like you said, they ran into a lot of trouble, some forfeitures, etc. It was an embarrassment, at least from a league perspective. That’s what a lot of the critics were saying anyway. Even you yourself, your JV team finished with a losing record of 1-7, so it was definitely a challenging year; a learning experience I’m sure for you as coaches, as well as for your players, but it can’t be easy going in week in and week out and not winning football games. This is football, and winning isn’t everything, but it’s certainly something. So what is it about this program, or this opportunity, that you’ve managed to maintain such an early interest? What are you doing to get these kids interested?

MH: I think the important thing is, and I touched on this earlier, in JV we were 1-7, we had an uphill battle, but teams will tell you, we competed every week. We were 1-7, but we competed every week. I think maybe one game against Burlington we were out. But when we were in Hamilton for example, I’ll never forget that game; I used to coach in Hamilton, and we were probably missing five or six of our best players that week, and we were almost going into the half only down by 13-0, and we were in the Red Zone. We were there. And of course, I’m not making excuses. At the end of the day, it’s the wins and losses that count, but we can look at our record as a coaching staff as we evaluate the season, and we can truly say that that was just a number because we know we competed. Now, with Varsity, of course there’s a lot of critique, and I hear it from people I know in and around the football community: “What are you doing there? What are you doing?” People need to take a step back and remember that these are kids that want to play football. Okay? And the Varsity season, yeah, it didn’t go over so well, but these are kids that want to play football. And there are already 40-something of them back for next year. Anyone who wants to knock us down and say that we’re gonna be a joke or that we’re a laughing stock – that’s fine, but just remember you’re still talking about kids. And I think the big thing for us is, for recruiting these kids – and I’ll tell you right now, the big promoter has been seeing the Canada Prep facility, having the coaches and the students here involved with helping us, and also seeing a lot of the kids . . . you know, I’ll say it right now; with JV last year, with my brother Alex Hill as the Offensive Coordinator, and Coach Cosz as the Defensive Coordinator, I wouldn’t have had two other guys calling either side of the ball. The kids genuinely loved working with them, and you’d see it at practice. And so when they see these same coaches, and we’re out recruiting, they see this and it’s a new thing. The Spears are already established. This here is something new and exciting for some of these kids that want to have that chance to go and play down in the States. This might be their gateway to kinda . . . you know, if some of these kids can impress Geoff in the summer, it could open up some doors for them maybe looking at Canada Prep in September. It’s just new, you know? We want to bring something new for these kids; we’ve got a lot of good coaches, we’ve got a lot of talent, and I think when the kids come to camp, the first workout is, “Well, coach, I’m gonna see.” And then, they’re leaving at the end of it and they’re like, “Holy cow!” Like the gymnasium here. There’s a lot of talent here. And they’re all putting their minds together and thinking, “Well, I’ve never played Spears before, and they’re already established. If I go there, I might not get a fair shake. I’m gonna come out to the Storm instead because this is new. These coaches aren’t political. They don’t have their favourites.” Not one of my coaches has a kid on staff. We’re not linked to any of the local high schools. We’re all coming in from Hamilton, Canada Prep – all over, and we’re just here to put the best players on the field.

JR: Now you say you’re not linked to any high schools, but do you yourself not still coach at the high school level?

MH: No, not now. I was at Sir Winston Churchill last year, and now this past year I’ve been with Canada Prep, and that’ll probably be my high school moving forward. Hopefully I’ll be with Canada Prep in the fall, and then the Storm in the summer.

JR: Okay, awesome. Now I guess one thing, because this is Niagara – mind you, it’s not just exclusive to Niagara – and being involved with the Ontario Football Conference (OFC) last year as their Media Coordinator, I could see a phenomenon that happens in youth football in just about every major community, which is that there are multiple teams in multiple leagues, and there’s this constant debate over, for example, Team A is in League A, and that’s supposedly better than Team B which is in League B, and so on. And parents and players, before they even look into what team they want to try out for, they already have this pre-conceived notion of who or what they think is better based on public opinion, based on rumour and misinformation, based on bias, and based on a lot of other things that didn’t make a lot of sense because I always felt that it came down to coaching and multiple other factors that come into play. So I’m curious, what are your thoughts on this? You mentioned that the Spears are already established. What are your thoughts on the perception that some players in general aren’t as good as other players, just based on the fact that they play on a different team?

AH: I think it’s not about what the other league offers. It’s about what we can offer, and about what our league offers, so let’s focus on that. Let’s focus on the OFC for a moment. It’s 3-down football – that’s what you’re playing in Canada. If you’re playing summer football in Canada, you’re probably leaning towards CIS, and we’re gonna give you that 3-down brand of football and those offenses that you’re gonna see at the next level. This isn’t 4-downs. We can’t run the ball every play. It’s 3-down football. It’s Canadian football. It’s CIS. It’s CFL. This is what it is, and that’s what we’re gonna prepare you for. I think that’s the biggest thing. I think there’s this historical kind of view that maybe the OVFL is stronger than the OFC, and I think that’s an old belief that’s kinda stuck with some people. The reality is, I’ve played in both, I’ve been around both; there is no better league. You have competitive teams in both leagues, and the truth is, you have some of the strongest teams in Ontario coming from the OFC, and we compete against them, and they’re phenomenal. They’re coaching staff, how they run their programs; and I think it’s about what the OFC can offer. It’s a great league. There are a lot of competitive teams, we’ve got a great coaching staff in place, and these kids are gonna learn. They’re gonna get 3-down football, and at the end of the day, they’re gonna come out as better football players. They’re gonna become more knowledgeable. And I think it’s about what we can offer. We’ve got to get rid of these old beliefs. One league isn’t better than the other. They’re both summer football. It’s about the coaching staff. It’s about what you make of your summer. There’s no better league. You’re getting good football wherever you play in Ontario.

JR: Right.

MH: And I think the other important thing too is, right now, if you look across the OFC for example, last year, I just looked at our conference itself – Hamilton and Burlington. I don’t care what anybody says, I think those are the two best football programs in Ontario. The Hamilton Hurricane guys in Varsity – we came from coaching with them. They run a great program. I don’t think they’ve lost a game in two years. I, myself, watched them play the Niagara Spears last year and embarrass them. It was like 40 or 50 to nothing. And the Spears can say it was only an exhibition, but when their ones were against the Spears’ ones, they killed them. When their twos were against their twos, they killed them. And they have a lot of CIS experience, coaches on staff – they’re affiliated with those CIS schools. If you’re playing with the Hamilton Hurricanes for example, or the Niagara Spears, I’ll tell you right now, you’ve got a lot better chance as a Hurricane, going somewhere because of their ties to the CIS, and I think that’s important to realize. Last year, week one, we played Guelph. Guelph was apparently supposed to be one of the weaker teams from years past. They showed up on the Guelph Griffins bus with about 75 football players.

JR: Wow.

MH: They’re now affiliated with the University of Guelph. They’re the Junior Griffins. So, you’ve got a lot of reputable – Hamilton, Burlington – not technically affiliated with anyone, but still, the best two programs in the league. You’ve got Guelph affiliated with Guelph. You know . . . Twin Cities; we go up and play TC and we’re playing at Laurier. You know what I mean? They’ve got those University facilities and resources that not a lot of the OVFL teams have.

JR: Right. So what’s it gonna take to get Niagara’s OFC team up to that level? Is it even possible, considering that Brock doesn’t have a football program?

MH: You know what? I think last year, and I think it’s mine and my brother’s competitive nature, in Hamilton – it’s a real hotbed. I had a lot of successful years coaching Alex. I watched him win every championship there was. So when we came to Niagara, all we know is winning, and that’s what we came out last year saying. Forget competing. We were gunning for a championship. It wasn’t realistic. Like Alex said, these kids had never played rep football before. A lot of these kids got a year of rep football under their belts now, and we got a lot of new and talented players who’ve never played rep football before, but they’re grade 12, they’re fifth year high school guys that are really good football players. These six or seven or eight Canada Prep football players that are joining us, I’ll tell you right now, they’re probably the most talented players in all of Canada. The kids of this school – they’re different. I know you came in and saw them; they look like University players. So I think the mix of some of these Canada Prep players, our new recruits, our returning guys; I think we’ve got the players. So if we can make this all come together, I’m not gonna say that we’re gonna go win a championship, but we’re gonna compete week in and week out. And we’re gonna surprise a lot of people.

AH: And I think football – it’s life. We had a bad season. You can pack up and leave, you can throw in the towel, or you can come back stronger and try to change that, right? And you don’t want to give up. We don’t have that mentality. It’s like football and in life – you don’t give up. These kids want it, and that’s what we feed off of. When these kids are telling Matty, “Hey Coach, I wanna be in the gym training,” how do you think as a coach that makes us feel? You’ve got these kids that want it just as bad as you, and we want to do it for them. We want to put together a great season. I think we’re in the process of – we’re taking the right steps to get there. And we just want to see it all come together more than anything.

MH: And I think another thing is that it was a real strong finish last year, and all us coaches – we all looked at each other and said, “Wow, we’ve gotta come back.” We finally won. We won our final game 55-7 and it was just like everything finally clicked. I told the players, “Just let it all go today,” and BOOM! 55-7. Everything just finally came together, and I think from starting this training camp earlier and putting everything in together now, and the other piece to this; that when we’re recruiting kids, some of these kids, they don’t realize that their high school – not many of them are getting recruited just at high school. Unless you’re playing in OFSAA or you’re on a really good program like Lakeshore or St. Paul – a really strong program, these kids aren’t getting recruited. Not only is our goal as coaches to win championships, but we want to develop these kids, and we also want to open up some doors for them. And if we manage to get some CIS coaches at our practices and games – we want them to see that this Niagara team has a tonne of talent. To us, it’s not just about us. You know what I mean? We want to do what’s best for these kids. We want to give them the opportunity to go and play at the next level. We want equal opportunities for all. We want to treat these kids like young men, whether it be school, football, or life, and we want to guide them and do everything we can to help them. And also, at the same time, we’re gonna have a lot of fun doing it.

JR: Awesome! Thank you both so much for taking the time to answer my questions today. And thanks for the tour of Canada Prep. Much appreciated.

MH/AH: Thanks, James.

 

James Ryan is an independent interviewer, writer (fiction & non-fiction), artist, gonzo sports journalist, author of Desolate Warrior, podcast host, and soon to be grandfather. You can follow him on Twitter @safeisdeath or visit his blog at www.mrjamesryan.com

 

 

 

James Ryan
James Ryan

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