No time to mess around
Delhi Raiders quarterback Anthony Abele slings a pass during team practice earlier this week. The defending Haldimand-Norfolk champs will welcome the McKinnon Park Blue Devils on Friday to begin the 2016 season. JACOB ROBINSON/SIMCOE REFORMER
The Haldimand-Norfolk Football League has taken a page from the NFL playbook by featuring a premier match-up in week one.
With kickoff to the 2016 campaign slated for Friday, the Delhi Raiders and McKinnon Park Blue Devils will renew hostilities in Tobacco Town.
The contest isn't simply a clash of the last two league champs but serves as a rematch of last year's Haldimand-Norfolk Bowl, which saw the Raiders earn a thrilling 24-22 comeback victory.
In past years, the two teams have met in the latter part of the schedule, but that's not the case this fall.
“You've got to get in there and get going right away - there's no time to mess around really,” said Delhi middle linebacker Bryce Ruppert. “In three weeks you've got to get ready for (McKinnon Park), it's a big job.”
While offensive stars like Delhi's quarterback Anthony Abele and tailback Ryan Isenor, and Blue Devils pivot Connor Carusello are still in the mix, there will be a handful of new faces in each team's starting lineup.
With that in mind, both squads won't necessarily be at the top of their game just yet, but that doesn't make Friday's meeting any less important.
“I think our guys know that we're coming out and we have to start swinging – we can't ease into things,” said Blue Devils coach Jason Pudwill. “We have to be a little bit better this week than we have in the past because we are playing, in my opinion, the best team in the league.”
Slow starts plagued Delhi in both meetings against the Blue Devils last season. In the regular season, McKinnon Park built up a pair of 14-point leads, and another two touchdown advantage against the Raiders with the Times-Reformer Cup on the line before Delhi stormed back in both contests.
“We had the conditioning in the third and fourth quarters in the Bowl game against (McKinnon Park) last year and they didn't,” Ruppert pointed out. “That's a big factor for this year's game.”
Friday's contest certainly won't win or lose a title for either side, but the Raiders and Blue Devils aren't treating Friday's showdown like any other regular season game.
“We obviously take into consideration what (McKinnon Park) can do,” Abele said. “I think after the win last year we kind of know what to expect, how to use our potential to become great again. We're playing a great team so we know we have to be out there everyday and work our tails off.”
Pudwill said Friday's match-up will be a “trial by fire” scenario for the rookies on his team, but a big game in week one will help with his group's preparation.
“We do have a lot of young kids playing and they need to learn to play some games and they need to learn to play football,” he said.
“Would I like another couple weeks to try and fine-tune a few things? Sure, but Delhi is in the same position that we are so it is what it is.”
Kickoff for the game is at 2 p.m. In other league action, Valley Heights is at Holy Trinity while Simcoe travels to face Waterford.