Junior football is finally a reality in Prince George.
Next month, the Prince George Northern Eagles will take flight in the Tier 2 division of the B.C. Football Conference. The Northern Eagles, stocked with 18- to 21-year-olds, will battle teams from Richmond, North Delta and South Delta and could eventually find themselves playing provincial Tier 1 ball against some of the top clubs in the country.
For years, local players, coaches and administrators have been dreaming about the arrival of junior football in Prince George. Now, they can celebrate like they've scored a game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock.
"It's incredible," said Mike Rositano, defensive coordinator for the Northern Eagles. "I wish I had this when I was a kid playing. I came out of here in 1991 as a player and in 1992 I was down with the Okanagan Sun [of Kelowna]. For us kids back then, you had to travel to play. For these guys, getting the chance to play at home is phenomenal. You can't beat that."
The BCFC had a Tier 2 division for the first time last year. The Prince George group applied for membership in December and was formally accepted in January.
"Our [players] were tapping out at the end of high school and we saw the ability and the interest in a lot of guys that could be playing at this level -- guys that would like to get to the next level but needed more experience or exposure to get there," said Ryan Bellamy, the Eagles' offensive coordinator. "So we applied to the BCFC and jumped through all the hoops.
"Everybody from the community seems to be jumping behind it," Bellamy added. "There has been lots of support so far and there has been lots of interest from the players. We've seen over 55 players out for tryouts and have been slowly putting together our roster."
The head coach of the Northern Eagles is Jim Lozon, a Fort St. John product who is also the quarterback coach of the BCFC's most dominant Tier 1 team, the Vancouver Island Raiders.
The Tier 2 league is a developmental one. At the same time, it's complementary to the Tier 1 loop because the schedules don't overlap.
To ensure that the Tier 2 clubs could fill their rosters, the BCFC decided to allow each to carry a maximum of six 21-year-olds, or overagers (see other story). Teams will also be permitted to use as many players with Tier 1 experience as they wish. However, those players will only be eligible for two seasons of Tier 2 football.
The Northern Eagles will feature at least eight guys who have played in Tier 1 of the BCFC. They are defensive lineman Brennan Adrian, wide receiver Tyson Plain, linebacker Tom Bray, offensive lineman Duncan Finch, defensive back Dan Weisgerber, defensive lineman Travis Shield, running back Nate Berg and running back Kyle Varley. All but Berg and Varley -- who were members of the VI Raiders -- suited up for the Chilliwack Huskers last season. Another player, cornerback Nick Wingfield, took 2012 off but played the previous two seasons with the Huskers.
Given the collective skill-set of the above group, and the overall quality of the rest of the Northern Eagles roster, Wingfield said the team could turn some heads this season.
"This is the most depth Prince George has ever seen," said the 20-year-old Wingfield, who played his senior years of high school football at Kelly Road. "We have talent at every position. We're going to make a good run, for sure."
The Northern Eagles have been practicing at the Northern Sport Centre fieldhouse since early February and will play a six-game regular season. Their first game is April 14 against the host Richmond Raiders. After a bye on April 21, the Eagles will be back in the Lower Mainland on April 28 and May 5 for games against the South Delta Rams and North Delta Longhorns. After a May 12 tilt with the Raiders, the P.G. club will close out its regular schedule with home dates against the Longhorns (May 19) and Rams (May 26). Both those contests will start at 11 a.m. at Masich Place Stadium.
All four teams will qualify for the playoffs, with semifinal games planned for June 2 in Richmond. The championship game will be on the gridiron June 16 in Richmond.
The Longhorns enter the season as defending champs.
The operating budget for the Northern Eagles has been pegged at $40,000. Bellamy said the team has received support from Lomak Bulk Carriers, Clusko Logging, Western Equipment, the Coast Inn of the North and Cap-abilities.