WINNIPEG —; Despite being the defending champions, the Oak Park Raiders enter the Winnipeg High School Football League semifinals as the underdog.
The Raiders lost almost their entire starting lineup to graduation in the off-season, so its been a changing of the guard for Oak Park. Just one starter returned from their 2014 championship season as 32 players departed. So it’s a very young and inexperienced Raiders team that features only 14 grade 12’s on the roster.
“We knew we were going to have our share of mistakes,” Oak Park head coach Stu Nixon said. “And you know possibly lose games that we should have won. But you know hopefully the learning curve would continue at a very steep angle and we’d get better at the right time.”
Complicating matters was the fact the Raiders also lost some key players to injury. They limped into the playoffs after a 4-4 regular season, but now they’re reaping the benefits of the experience gained during those tough times.
“It built a lot of character,” Nixon said. “Now we’re in the final four and who knows what can happen from here. We’re healthy again so, see what happens.”
The Raiders will rely heavily on Kieran Stone in the semifinals against the Vincent Massey Trojans. He’ll play on both sides of the football at running back and safety after scoring two touchdowns and throwing for another in their win over the Grant Park Pirates in the quarterfinals. And Stone had a message for those who see the champs as ripe for the picking.
“We’re still defending champions,” Stone said. “And we’re still going to play for that trophy and people shouldn’t take us lightly.”
But now their toughest tests remain as they head into their semifinal match up against a Trojans team that lost just once in the regular season. The Trojans shut out opponents in four of their eight games and their average margin of victory is more than 33 points.
“They’re up there with St. Paul’s this year,” Nixon said. “It’d be tough to pick a favourite out of those two teams, but they’re heads above everyone else.”
“We want that trophy too just as bad as they do, and we’re not going to let go easy,” Stone said.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Investors Group Field. The other semifinal pits the unbeaten St. Paul’s Crusaders against the Garden City Fighting Gophers starting at 5:00 p.m. at IGF.
WATCH: The defending champion Oak Park Raiders prepare for semifinal against the Vincent Massey Trojans.