OVFL takes youth football to next level

When Michael Prempeh spots a familiar face from his playing days in the Ontario Varsity Football League (OVFL), fond memories spring to the surface.

The fourth-year receiver for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues nostalgically recollects those childhood experiences with fellow OVFL alumni, now littered throughout Canadian University rosters.

His five seasons suiting up for the Etobicoke Eagles were invaluable in furthering his development as a player, and also tons of fun.

“Playing football in the summer helped me a lot, especially coming into the high school season,” Prempeh told the Toronto Observer on Wednesday. “I felt I was better prepared and more knowledgeable than the guys who didn’t play.”

Established in 1999, the OVFL in a non-profit youth organization with franchises spanning the province, from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie.

With 24 organizations and three age divisions, the league provides a highly competitive platform for dedicated players wishing to compete during the high school off-season.

What began as a 10-team league, with a lone Varsity age bracket, has undergone a rapid expansion in shortly over a decade.

Joe Cressy oversees the operation, widely regarded as the unrivaled brand of youth football in the province.

“The OVFL really compliments high school football,” said Cressy, who has been the commissioner for five seasons. “The kids become better players; they are playing more ball, so they become better athletes.”

Prempeh highly recommends that any player considering the sport at the University or professional level take part in the May-to-August season.

“You are taking the best players from every high school and putting them on one team,” said Prempeh, who ranks second on the Varsity Blues with 345 receiving yards this year. “I feel it is much more competitive than high school football.”

Getting noticed

Michael Prempeh. (Michael Prempeh photo)

There is no wavering in public opinion when it comes to being scouted for CIS football programs.

If you want to be seen, heard or smelled, then the OVFL is the place to be.

“Just about every university in Canada, Ontario for sure, is showing up at the OVFL games at some point,” Cressy said. “Lots of the scouts from across Canada come to our games as well.”

U of T head coach Greg Gary, who spent four years commanding the Mississauga Warriors before advancing to the OUA, believes the league is the best place to gain exposure to scouts.

“If you’re trying to get yourself out there, that’s the place people will be taking a hard look [at you],” said Gary, who coached Mississauga to a 2008 Junior Varsity championship. “It is a highly-recruited league.”

When discussing the OVFL’s impact on nurturing players and placing them in a first-class seat to advance beyond high school ball, the proof is in the pudding.

If you were to attempt a roll call of the league’s notable alumni, you would undoubtedly run short of breath.

Oshiomogho Atogwe, safety for the NFL’s Washington Redskins; Jerome Messam, running back for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos; Tyler Varga, running back for the OUA’s Western Mustangs, and the league’s leading rusher; Andy Fantuz, slotback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian in 2010; and former New England Patriots offensive tackle Nick Kaczur, all suited up for OVFL clubs.

“If you take the Hamilton Tiger-Cats themselves, I believe there are seven or eight players directly from the OVFL who are playing there right now,” Cressy said. “There are a number of players in the CFL, playing for just about every club that’s out there.”

Four-down territory

While the shape of the ball and the size of the field are in line with accepted Canadian football standards, the OVFL has tweaked one important rule.

Instead of three downs to gain a first, it’s four.

“In the beginning, we thought it was a great thing to do for the development of our players,” Cressy said. “It gives them a little more time on the field on the offensive side of the ball.”

Even though high school and University football in Canada are three-down games, coach Gary never took issue with the OVFL’s unique structure.

“That extra down gives teams a running game,” Gary added. “And if they can’t pass, it gives them an opportunity to do some different things.”

Depending on the club, the cost of participation ranges from $495 to $1,000 per season.

A lot of teams partake in fundraising initiatives to assist those who wish to play, but otherwise would be unable due to financial constraints.

One of the key contributors to the funding effort has been the Canadian Tire Jumpstart program, which provides assistance for disadvantage kids to play organized sports.

This past summer, in its 13th season, the OVFL had over 3,500 participants throughout Ontario.

With an eye on next April, commissioner Cressy is planning both Varsity (19 and under) and Junior Varsity (16 and under) prospect games, in concert with an all-star team for both divisions.

Though the plans are yet to be finalized, the goal is to take the all-star squads to the United States for an international tournament that would open some doors to American scouting.

Ostensibly, the OVFL is a sound organization, with a bright future ahead.

“It is a financially solid program,” Cressy said. “It’s stronger than it has ever been, and it’s growing very well.”

One comment:

  1. We played a team from Chilliwack last year here in Nebraska. Great people, had a lot of fun and made some good friendships. We beat them soundly but found they did have a good number of athletic kids, just not as much speed or “football speed” compared to our kids. Playing US rules hurt them a bit too. http://winningyouthfootball.com

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