THE Highland Stags are eagerly awaiting news of whether they can make their maiden journey into the British American Football leagues.
Club officials believe they have fulfilled all the criteria necessary to join the BAFA setup and hope to know for sure by the end of December.
Remarkably, the Stags are in their first season in existence as the only senior American Football side in the region. They had to play a minimum of five associate games – friendlies – and managed seven, winning five of them.
They have accumulated a roster of 40 players and should they get the nod to join the NFC North Division Two, alongside teams from Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dumfries, Clyde Valley and Dundee, they will kick-start a recruitment drive.
All the hard work behind-the-scenes is start to come to fruition for head coach Billy Mill, who believes the Stags have confounded expectations this year.
“It’s not unheard of for associate teams to not win a game,” he said. “But we had a big win against Aberdeen this year, who were a playoff team. We’ve been competitive and beaten league teams.
“Before our first game, we hadn’t had an 11-on-11 practice. The most we’d had at training was 18 players. We didn’t have a clue how good we were.
“But each win seems to bring more guys along. We’ve certainly overshot our goals this year by winning five of our seven games.”
The team was started up this year by Mark Paulin, a former Wildcats player and coach. However, he emigrated to Australia after their second game and a committee was formed to take over the running of the team, which included appointing Dan Sutherland as general manager.
His role is to make sure the club complies with the significant amount of regulations associated with the sport, right down to the standard of their roster photos.
“We’re trying to be big on not putting barriers up to trying the sport,” said Sutherland. “You only need football boots and a gumshield – we provide the rest.
“Sometimes we’ll get guys down that have never tried the sport and because they’ve enjoyed it, they’ve stuck around. It’s an amazing sport and so fun to play.”
A previous senior side run by the Highland Wildcats, the city’s hugely successful youth and junior side, struggled for numbers, withdrawing from competitive action in 2012.
However the Stags have shown little sign of inheriting the same problem. Even for longer away trips, Mill is still able to call upon a squad of close to 30 players, with numbers swelling for home encounters.
“One of the factors affecting senior teams is that when they break for winter, they don’t see each other until they come back for pre-season,” he said. “But we go down to The Dog House every Sunday to watch the NFL and people can see there’s a team unity. We’re quite actively looking for guys to get involved.”
The Stags have benefitted from strong relationships with the local community.
The Dog House came on board as a sponsor early in the season and a firm relationship with the Wildcats has seen a number of their former players turn out for the Stags, who play their home games at Ross Sutherland Rugby Club.
“We’ve got good relations with the Wildcats and Robbie Paulin; we’re going to take players off him when they have finished playing junior football,” said Mill. “There’s six that have come over so far.
“A lot of guys have come back in and wanting to coach but we’ve got a good handful of those that are playing as well. There’s only one person who just coaches.”
Wildcats mainstays like Mark Pyper, Haris Ryalls and Stephen McMeechan, who have come through the Wildcats youth and junior sides, have stepped up to the Stags after reaching 19 – the upper-end of the junior age-bracket.
Other familiar faces like Tom Green and Davie Grant, who have refereed and coached Wildcats games, are also involved with the new senior side.
Once notification is received by the end of December, one way or another the Stags will have a clear path set for next season.
Should they be accepted into the BAFA leagues, pre-season training will begin in February with the season likely to begin in April. They have a friendly lined up with Glasgow in February.
First up is a recruitment day on January 28 (venue to be confirmed) where prospective players can learn the basics of the game from Stags players and coaches.
“We’ve got about 40 players on the roster but would like to get that up to the mid-50s if we get in,” added Mill. “We started out with 25 players and once we started winning games, that started attracting more players.”