The Duchess Park Condors are rediscovering their roots on the Prince George high school football field.
Recovering from near-extinction a couple years ago and the total collapse of the senior team program following the death of head coach Matt Pearce, the Condors junior varsity team is dominating the local junior varsity scene, raising hopes Duchess Park will return to double-A varsity senior football by next season.
Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Kelly Road Roadrunners, the Condors were a perfect 2-0 after convincing wins over the Prince George Polars (42-0 on Oct. 2) and the College Heights Cougars (33-14 on Oct. 9).
The Condors were a double-A varsity powerhouse with Pearce calling the shots as head coach. They won back-to-back PG Bowl titles in 2013 and 2014, then lost to PGSS in the 2015 final. In 2016, eight months after Pearce’s death, the Condors captured the Northern Conference title again. But in 2017, down to just a dozen players, the senior team folded after just one game.
The junior Condors have followed a similar roller-coaster path. They won all 18 games they played in the first three seasons of the junior varsity league, from 2013-15, but the wheels fell off in 2016, the year Pearce died. They had just one win over the next three seasons and defaulted several games in that time. Last year, with a blend of Grade 11 players new to football, the Condors were limited to exhibition games only. Bit this year, it’s a much different story.
Junior varsity Condors head coach Steve Porter says the Duchess Park rebuilding project is similar to what happened at Kelly Road a few years ago when senior numbers dropped sharply and the Roadrunners took a year off from the double-A varsity league to retool in 2015. The Kelly Road juniors took their lumps the first couple years but won the North Division title in Year 3 of the rebuilding.
“Throughout our league the power kind of rises and falls and it depends on the kids too and who happens to be there at the time, so everybody goes through their peaks and valleys, numbers-wise,” said Porter. “Losing Matt changed definitely quite a bit of stuff and the profile of the sport in the school changed a little bit and it became less popular. Not having somebody in the school (to recruit players) always has a big impact and I wasn’t working (at Duchess Park), so you can’t go chase kids down.”
Porter was still coaching the Kelly Road junior team when he began teaching at Duchess three years ago. Now, as an in-house recruiter, he says it’s been easier to convince students new to football to try it out for the Condors and the roster has swelled to 23 players, up from 19 players in 2018.
The junior Condors started the exhibition season with wins over College Heights and Westsyde of Kamloops, then went to Mission on Sept. 28 to play the triple-A Roadrunners, where the Condors lost 22-12.
“They’re a middle of the pack triple-A team and they totally hung with those kids down there and it was pretty impressive we didn’t have any major injuries,” said Porter. “It was a cool experience being able to go down there. I’ve got kids right now that hadn’t left Prince George before. For a lot of the kids, this is their first organized sport. After the game we took them to a B.C. Lions game, so they saw their first pro sports game.
“We have a good cross-section of kids, and one thing that’s the big turnaround is we have numbers, plus we’re getting a lot of the multisport players out. We’re got basketball players, volleyball players and an awesome soccer player who’s our kicker (Ewan Murray) and all of a sudden we’re practicing 40-yard field goals, but he can make them.”
Running back/linebacker Noah Lank had 16 rushes for 270 yards and a pair of touchdowns and also hauled in a TD catch in the Condors’ Oct. 9 win over College Heights and in two games ran for a total of 408 yards and four touchdowns.
Porter is trying to spread the ball around the rest of the team to keep it fun the rest of his players and keep opponents guessing. First-year quarterback Quinn Neukomm has plenty of options on offence with the likes of Lank, Murray, Carson Briere, Aidan Lewis and Liam Fraser contributing to the Condor cause.
Porter credits Condors assistant coach Craig Briere’s work in organizing Northern B.C. tryouts of the GameReady Elite 7-on-7 team, for stimulating local interest in football. Tryouts were held in June at the Northern Sport Centre for a 7-on-7 traveling team competed in the summer in tournaments in Calgary and Washington State, where they met NFL receiver Odell Beckham Jr. A free skills camp in Surrey for kids included former CFL players Will Loftus, Geroy Simon, J.R. LaRose and Paris Jackson.
“A lot of our kids were part of that 7-on-7,” said Porter. “They’ve been practicing since December and 7-on-7 is fast, so they’re learning all that skill-position stuff we don’t always focus on. A lot of the time, especially in P.G., football is big guys who pound the ball and we don’t always develop that pass game and coverages.
“These guys have been working on that stuff, so they have a huge skill jump compared to the kids who weren’t doing it. Now they’re really starting to stand out at those skill positions.”