By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Last year, Team Manitoba’s senior men’s flag team was near unstoppable. They rolled through their first two games at nationals, outscoring their opponents 90-0 before eventually topping a Team Canada squad that included former CFL players Chris Bauman and Chris Getzlaf.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that head coach Mike Laping – who has over two decades of experience in the sport – has high expectations for the defending national champs, who will enter this year’s tournament in Saskatoon as Team Canada.
“We really have to win again this year,” he says passionately.
“We’re really looking forward to it. I think all the guys bought in on it last year. The changes we had to make were more logistical more than a player not fitting in. We just added to what I learned from nationals last year and seeing what the other teams do, because every province seems to do things a little differently.”
As noted by Laping, there are a few adjustments being made to this year’s roster, including the addition of receivers Billy Matwichyna, Noah Dornn, and Michael Goldenstein and defensive back Shae Weekes, all of the Manitoba Bisons. The quartet will join Riley Harrison and Jamie Ybarra Jr., each of whom were on the roster for both the Bisons and Laping last season.
“As a coach, I can tell you that I’m always looking at learning more. And I like the young guys here because I can pick their brains too. They bring so much to the table and are knowledgeable, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing university football, so it’s invaluable to the team to have them,” Laping says of the Bison connection.
“It makes my life a lot easier when you’ve got kids who want to play hard, but you can ask a question and they always have an intelligent answer for you, which I like, because they understand the game so well.”
Of the above mentiond group, Ybarra Jr. stands out, both from his performance at the national tournament last year – where he was named to Team Canada’s World Flag Football Championships roster – as well as his long-term connection to Laping.
“I love Jamie. I think everybody knows Jamie’s my favourite. You’re not supposed to have favourites, but he is,” the head coach says.
“I met Jamie when he was in high school at St. Paul’s and honestly when I first saw him I didn’t like him. And just the way he acts and does things, it’s impossible not to like him for long. He’s just an awesome kid. Then on the football field he’s just smart and so athletic. Even when he seems to be wrong, he ends up being right. He’s one of those kinds of guys. Everybody on the team loves him.”
The other player who earned a nod to Team Canada’s Worlds roster last year was defensive MVP Julian Banares, a humble and hard-working athlete who also shone as a receiver for the Winnipeg Rifles in the past. He’ll be the team’s defensive captain.
He just works,” Laping says.
“He can flag so well, he can cover anybody on the field. Man, zone you name it. He makes all the calls on the field, he does everything on the field and doesn’t need any help. He’s just a special guy.”
Captaining the offensive side of the ball will be returning centre Keith Bourgeois, who Laping describes as “one of the most fundamentally sound snappers in Canada.”
“He’s got to snap the ball back, sometimes 12-15 yards on a rope and then get down field and get open. Keith’s special at that. He also catches everything. He’s probably one of the best catching centres in Canada, and once he catches the ball he’s pretty hard to flag, so he’s dynamic at that spot.”
Manning the pivot position will be PIT football co-founder Jon Franklin, who brings over three decades of experience to the game.
“Really on this size of a football field, there is not a better quarterback,” says Laping.
“He’s smart, he can adjust well, he can throw the ball into tighter windows. I’ve known Jon and played personally with and against him for well over 15 years and in that time span he’s just gotten continually better.”
Rounding out the roster are four veteran players who have a deep-rooted passion for touch and flag football and that Laping has gotten to know quite well over the years.
Rusher Brandon Labonte is “a track star who’s just so fast,” Kurt Yakimoski is “easily the best flagger in Canada,” Justin Stewart is a “tough kid who’s a ride-or-die player,” and Jeff Draper is a big-bodied 6’7” corner and slot receiver who is “athletic and quicker than you think for being that size.”
Laping’s squad will play in the mandatory Canadian Flag Football League and will also compete at western regionals, taking place from May 18-20 in Winnipeg. They will then move on to nationals in Saskatoon from July 26-28, looking to defend their title against teams from Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
The cost to head to nationals is roughly $7000 and Laping and company are looking for any help sponsorship or finance-wise as the team prepares to defend their title. For more information, please email Mike at Mike.firstname.lastname@example.org.