To say that's all changed is a bit of an understatement, and the Selects Interprovincial tournament during the Jan. 5 weekend at YaraCentre was a perfect example of just how much things have grown.
Three of the Selects' four teams took part in the event, which drew thousands of parents, players, coaches and fans from all over Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The local fieldhouse was packed three and four deep up and down both sidelines as players in the 10-and-under, 12U and 14U all went through their paces in preparation for the 2019 International Pigskin Classic in San Antonio, Texas.
Selects organizer Zeljko Stefanovic wouldn't have things any other way. In fact, things haven't come close to the scope he hopes to the see the program grow – even to the point of adding in games against teams from Alberta next year.
“This is unbelievable to see all these people here packed in, we had to move a bunch of chairs and bring in stands and things like that,” Stefanovic said with his customary enthusiasm. “There are three parking lots out there completely full, you can't even find a place to park... this is what this place was built for, man. We have over 300 kids here this weekend taking part in this tournament and it's only going to get even bigger and better.”
The tournament was the second of it's kind and was born out of necessity for both provincial programs – the lack of competition prior to taking the field at the Pigskin had proven less than ideal in the past.
“We used to get to San Antonio and we hadn't hit anyone else, we'd just been playing against our own defence and our own offence,” Stefanovic said. “So this is an unbelievable opportunity for us to compete against Manitoba. And they brought it, man, they were big and they were competitive, they really gave us a challenge.”
The 12-and-under contest was a perfect example of that. Each team had 10 plays from scrimmage as part of a 'quarter' of football, and both squads spent their time on field moving a few yards off the 50-yard line – one team would advance, the other would make a big defensive play for lost yards, and so on. In the end, the ball never made it to the red zone for either team – the kind of the competitive balance and defensive performances that showed just how much preparation had taken place.
“It's been tremendous and we're so happy with how this has taken off.. it's been a learning experience because no one has ever done this before, so there's no template,” Stefanovic said. “But it's been fun.”
And to be sure, the Selects aren't preparing for what some might think is just a spring vacation. No, with the level of scouting and the sets of eyes keeping a close eye on proceedings while seeking out talent, the Selects take things especially serious. And it's shown on the field, as Saskatchewan is regularly a top contender at the event.
“I was talking to one of the dads earlier this spring, and we remembered when we used to go down there and all the parents expected to compete,” Stefanovic said. “Now we go down there and all the parents and players expect to win. So things have changed. Like I just told the parents a few minutes ago, our kids are way better than anyone gives them credit for – or than we even give them credit for. If we grind and work hard, the sky is the limit.”
The International Pigskin runs from Feb. 23-24; the four Selects squads – the previously mentioned three age classes as well as a 16-and-under team – will practice at YaraCentre each weekend until leaving for San Antonio on Feb. 20. The tournament features 50 teams from all over the U.S. and Canada, many of which make regular appearances alongside the Selects.
“Teams that we've played in the past and keep coming back and making the tournament as great as it is... our kids have become friends with those kids and they still keep in touch,” Stefanovic said. “So it's been good and it's an awesome program.
“And we love it because it's so much fun,” he continued. “We have so many good people involved and so many good coaches and it just translates into what the kids are doing, they can see it and sense it.”