Junior versus CIS
While the CIS is largely considered as the top amateur football program in the country, with more and more players making the transition from junior football to professional ranks, people are beginning to realize the potential long-term benefits of spending time in junior.
When a player graduates high school, he is faced with the tough decision of whether to play junior football or make the jump to university, with arguably bigger, stronger and faster athletes.
One of the biggest elements that attracts young football players to play junior football as opposed to making the jump to CIS, is that they can spend more time working on their football skills, while not having the added stress and pressure of a full university workload.
”The Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) gives players flexibility with their careers and education,” said Brin Werrett, president of Regina Thunder. “About 50 per cent of our players are pursuing secondary education. Some are SIAST students, many are U of R students and many are working while going to school as well. Junior football players have the flexibility to choose, unlike CIS players who must be full time students.”
Besides the increased flexibility, another benefit to playing junior football is that it can provide a player with more time to develop their playing ability. Although many players do elect to play CIS football directly out of high school, this often results in sitting on the sidelines as a red shirt for the first year, time that may be used more valuably with a year of hands-on playing experience in junior.
“I think the benefit for any player that elects to take that [junior] route is to grow as a player in regards to not having to jump right into the CIS ranks right away,” said Mike Thomas, technical director of Football Saskatchewan. “For some players, they would like to make sure that they are prepared physically and mentally for the leap to university.”
However, while it is clear that junior can be used to further develop a player’s talents, according to Jim Donlevy, Convenor for Canada West football, he believes that playing junior football may be detrimental to a player.
“I think that if good-quality players stay too long in the lower level, which is junior, let’s not kid ourselves here, they develop bad habits because they are superior athletes at that level and then they start taking short cuts and aren’t as disciplined as they have to be to play at the next level,” he said. “If they are ready to make the move, they shouldn’t stay as a big fish in a small pond, that’s not good for their development.”
Many players elect to use junior football as a stepping-stone to prepare them to eventually transition into CIS football. Because the two leagues offer a combined seven years of football eligibility, it allows many players take advantage of the increased playing time.
“The CJFL allows players to play up until they are 22 – five years after high school. CIS Football allows players to have five years of eligibility, however, this must be done in 7 years of graduating,” Werrett said. “Combined, you are allowed to play up to a combination of 7 years between both leagues. For example, if a player plays in the CJFL for five full years, they would still be eligible to play another two years in CIS – or any other combination. This career path gives a player more opportunity to play football and transition to a CIS league with more experience. It’s a path that many of our players take.”
“Kids see that there is an opportunity for them and going either route will get you there; it just depends on the time that it is going to take.” – Mike Thomas
If executed correctly, players can gain valuable experience and knowledge from both leagues, which they then hope to carry into a career in professional football. For CFL prospect Kolton Solomon, he is reaping the benefits of spending time at both the junior and CIS levels.
“Kolton was a classic case of a kid that was very talented but being an 18-year-old kid coming into the CIS he was definitely able to play at that level on the field but it’s the off the field part that is sometimes difficult and I think that is where it caught up with him,” Thomas said. “Having the fall back option to being able to play junior I think really helped him in terms of maturing both physically and mentally to be able to better prepare himself for when he did return to the U of R.”
The University of Regina Rams product spent time with both the Vancouver Island Raiders and Regina Thunder before returning to CIS, and recently signed his second contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.
“Kolton is a great example of a player who has played in both leagues and had the opportunity to move into the professional level under both systems,” Werrett said. “The CJFL gave Kolton an opportunity to gain additional playing time and develop an initial relationship with the Roughriders organization. He was able to continue to develop and create opportunities by playing with the Rams as well.”
For players like Solomon, who are eventually looking to take their talents to a professional football career, both leagues have the ability to get players there, but the route players take will be slightly different.
“What’s unique about the CJFL is that CFL teams have territorial rights to players within the system,” Werrett explained. “For example, the Saskatchewan Roughriders have the rights to any player currently playing for either the Saskatoon Hilltops or the Regina Thunder. Once a player plays one game in the CIS system, they now must go through the CFL Draft where any team can draft their rights.”
In recent years, the Regina Thunder has sent many players directly to professional football without spending any time in the CIS, including Dan Clark, Zack Evans, Stu Foorde, Clay Cooke, and more. However, they have also sent products to the CIS for further development, like Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont, Rory Kohlert, Paul Woldu, and Bryce McCall all of whom spent time in both leagues before making their professional debuts.
As Thomas points out, whatever path a player chooses, it will be their determination and work ethic that is the biggest factor for whether they play at the next level, not the path in which they choose to get there.
“Kids see that there is an opportunity for them and going either route will get you there; it just depends on the time that it is going to take.”
Photo courtesy of reginathunder.ca