Marcus O'Hagan, left, Miles Foote and Boston Barry and their Cambridge Lions peewee football team are in a league of their own. Mathew McCarthy,Record staff
CAMBRIDGE — He was open to the idea, but Steve Pahl was initially puzzled at the prospect of his team doing Zumba as its practice warmup.
"I thought, 'this isn't football,'" said the coach of the Cambridge Lions who was a former NCAA lineman during the mid- to late-1990s at The Citadel military college in South Carolina.
It is now.
The Lions are obviously onto something. The peewee tier 1 team takes an 8-0 won-lost record into its Ontario Football League semifinal playoff game against the 6-3 Burlington Stampeders Friday night at 7 at Jacob Hespeler.Nobody has been competitive with Cambridge. Not counting what went into the books as a 6-0 forfeit win over Mississauga, the Lions outscored their seven on-field opponents 396-36, with five shutouts. They beat Burlington 65-0 earlier. The average margin of victory is 56-5, though 7-1 Hamilton came within 36-18 of the Lions in September.
Non-traditional though it may be in football terms, Zumba is just another element of what Pahl and his coaching staff preach to their peewees.
"It's all about the team," said running back Marcus O'Hagan, who leads the club in rushing with 769 yards and 13 touchdowns on 87 carries.
The players and instructor Katy Plauszta, whose son Damian plays for the Lions, obviously have fun with it while embracing the conditioning merits of Zumba. The coaches participate, too, based on how well their particular unit performed, or didn't, in the previous week's game — much to the delight of the players.
"The kids have bought in to what we've been selling," Pahl said.
Football is arguably the most regimented of sports and to watch this very structured team's practice routine, down to team dress, focus and discipline, it's clear why the Lions, at least to this point, have no real competition.
"It gets sort of boring with all the blowouts, but we have two practices a week and we still learn lots of stuff," said O'Hagan, who teams with running mate Boston Barry and quarterback Miles Foote in a potent backfield that produced 2,254 yards in total offence over seven games. Barry, a dual threat, ran for 513 yards and five touchdowns on 78 carries, adding 207 yards and three scores on nine catches.
"The games are what I call a bonus," Pahl said. "It's the extra part of what we do. The practices are where the development comes."
That's due to the internal dynamic fostered by the coaching staff.
"We're always learning things in practice, finding ways to beat each other," said Foote, who completed 47 of 90 pass attempts for 765 yards and 12 touchdowns during the regular season. "A lot of our competition comes from practice. Every week, everyone is fighting for jobs."
Once the games come, the Lions' job is to win while developing their skills. To date, they're in a league of their own. So they do their best to keep things competitive, try to hold the score down. They substitute freely. They do things like starting their defensive players on offence and vice-versa.
As a result, several things inevitably happen. Scoring still soars, because the subs want to strut their stuff. A player like Barry will do his best to impress at linebacker, where he played several snaps in a recent 56-0 win over York. And who's going to tell big defensive tackle Alex Pauletic to rein things in when he gets a chance to go on a rampage at running back, as he did in the same game?
"It was fun," said Pauletic, who at 12 is in his seventh year with the Lions minor football program. "I got a few first downs."
And learned more about playing on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage. It's all part of progressive player development.
Cambridge will be a prohibitive favourite in the playoffs in pursuit of a second consecutive 10-0 run to the fall league title. But regardless what happens, the organization — whose atom tier 1 Lions also went 8-0 — will continue that development with a trip to Canton, Ohio, for the American Thanksgiving Midwestern Youth Tournament.
The peewee Lions, bolstered by some Cambridge age-12 bantam players and a sprinkling of other top players from the OFL, will play in the event against top-flight American teams, while also visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And they might, coach Pahl said with a smile, even use Zumba as their pre-game — not just practice — warmup for the first time. Just to provide their American friends with something to ponder.
Karlo Berkovich’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached
at [email protected] . Twitter: @KarloBerkovich