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SFU football's demise a 'punch in the stomach' for Tri-Cities’ players, coaches

The Burnaby university is a destination for many high school football players from Centennial Secondary in Coquitlam and Terry Fox Secondary in Port Coquitlam.

At first, Connor Jones couldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him when he flipped open his laptop during class at Centennial Secondary Tuesday morning (April 4).

The senior's Instagram feed was telling him Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby cancelled its varsity football program immediately. It was where the 5'10" wide receiver had recently committed to begin playing and studying in September.

"I thought it was some sort of fake news," Jones told the Tri-City News. "I had a hard time understanding how this could happen if they just finished having spring camp, signing new recruits, naming coaches and everything seemed to be moving forward as usual."

SFU made its bombshell announcement that 58 years of football at the school had come to an abrupt end after the Lone Star Conference, the Texas-based league where the Red Leafs began playing in 2021, decided in January not to renew its two-year affiliate contract with the only Canadian school in the NCAA.

SFU joined the league after several schools in its previous league, the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC), discontinued their programs.

"With the recent announcement that the team will not be invited to continue with Lone Star, we don’t have a conference to play in for 2024," said provost and vice-president academic Wade Parkhouse in a statement. "The ongoing uncertainty creates an unacceptable experience for students."

Jones' teammate at Centennial, quarterback Malcolm Cameron, said he was "blindsided" by the news, especially after getting no hint the boom would soon be lowered when he attended SFU’s spring training camp just last week.

"I was shocked and devastated," Cameron said after he received an email from the university's athletic director later on Tuesday.

Dino Geremia, an SFU grad who also coached at the school for 17 years and now guides Centennial’s football program, said the Red Leafs’ demise is a “punch in the stomach” that will hurt the sport at every level in the province.

He said SFU provided local student athletes an opportunity to play and study close to home, with family and community support close by.

“Many times athletes are looking for a local opportunity so they can continue to build their existing networks and have opportunities to give back to their amateur programs and high schools,” said Geremia, who also leads a leadership program at Centennial designed to guide student athletes through the recruitment process for post-secondary scholarship opportunities.

He said SFU’s position in American college athletics (first in the NAIA and most recently in NCAA Div II following a brief interlude in Canada’s U Sports) made it unique.

“SFU football has provided an opportunity for young players to set goals and aspirations to play against top-notch competition and do it as a Canadian.”

Tom Kudaba, another SFU alumnus who now coaches the Terry Fox Ravens, said without SFU as a local option for post secondary football, some of those young players might not even find their way to the sport.

“Some parents will say there’s nothing in football, so they’ll turn their kids to other sports,” Kudaba said. “But it’s a chance for a lot of kids to play, be part of a team and give back to the school and to themselves.”

Several local players from the Tri-Cities used their time at SFU as a springboard to successful pro careers, including Lemar Durant, Nick Hebeler, Brett Anderson, Michael Couture and Sukh Chung.

Tri-Cities' kids listed on the Red Leafs' current roster include:

  • Kyle Huish, Junior defensive back, Terry Fox
  • Drew Lirag, Freshman defensive back, Centennial
  • Ziad Sabry, Freshman running back, Centennial
  • Jesse Kim, Freshman wide receiver, Centennial
  • Isaiah Cooper, Sophomore linebacker, Terry Fox
  • Alex Gagnon, Sophomore linebacker, Terry Fox
  • Tom Wiggin, Freshman linebacker, Terry Fox
  • Jordan Sye, Freshman outside line, Terry Fox
  • Cameron Keeskotagan, Sophomore defensive line, Centennial

In its announcement. SFU said it would provide one-on-one counselling to help players decide their next steps and the school will honour athletic scholarships next year for those who want to remain there and meet academic eligibility requirements.

Geremia said that’s little consolation.

"The last people they actually were concerned about were the student athletes," he said. "To wait until after they finished their spring camp in April, it is possibly the worst time on the football calendar, everyone knows that."

Cameron said all the time and energy he spent talking to coaches, compiling and submitting highlight reels and weighing the pros and cons of where to go has been wasted.

"I am left to find somewhere to play football," he said, adding he’s unsure what opportunities might still be out there for him.

Jones said he's still too stunned to think about his next move. He's talked to some former teammates at Centennial who were on SFU's roster and "it has not been good news."

Jones said the university’s proximity to home and its American pedigree were allures to go there.

Now he’s left scrambling to talk to other schools that had previously indicated interest in his abilities, but he's not optimistic.

"I'm very appreciative of any spot a team would offer me as I know the teams have already made final roster decisions and it’s late in the year," he said.

"I am hoping I can make it work with them this time around."