The 2019/20 American football season for the Keele Crusaders was the first under then-newly appointed head coach Peter Mills, and it was a vast improvement upon their 2018/19 season. They went 4-1-1 and clinched second in the Midlands 2A. The 2019/20 season included a win over Varsity rivals Staffordshire Stallions in the division and led to the Crusaders securing a Cup Playoffs space. Unfortunately, it resulted in a quarter final 14-9 defeat to Glasgow in March 2020, yet the team can be proud of what it achieved and is hoping to build on this for the 2020/21 season.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a horrendous impact on sports participation (especially at universities), with many 2020 university freshers not seeing any sports action. With that in mind, I decided to ask Keele Crusaders head coach Peter Mills questions on the season ahead and the current state of American football at British universities.
Q1: After qualification for the playoffs in the 2019/20 season, what are your hopes and aspirations for the upcoming season?
PM: After myself and the coaching team were appointed in 2019, we were amazed at the talent in the squad and how quickly they became a team to be feared. We quickly installed some intense practice sessions and new coaching methods and the students very quickly started to play to their potential. We only suffered one defeat all season, beating teams like Leicester and our local rivals, the Staffordshire Stallions, along the way (achieving our first ever win against Staffs in the regular season).
We continued to engage with the players during lockdown and after on-campus sessions stopped, we moved to online coaching to improve their knowledge of the game, fitness, and nutrition. The philosophy and culture of the Crusaders is now firmly embedded on campus, and we have high hopes of attracting new students to the team.
Our returning players will be challenging for promotion and all the teams in the league now have their eyes on the Keele Crusaders as the team to beat.
Q2: Because of COVID, the 2020/21 playing season was non-existent, meaning much of the team will be made up of first-year and second-year students who have never played a live game before at university. Do you think this will hinder the team or do you believe that youthfulness will strive your team forward?
PM: We actually have approximately twenty players returning this year and most of them have played before for the Crusaders. We also have close relationships with local adult teams who play in the summer and a lot of these players have been playing senior ball during the summer and will come back more experienced.
The addition of new players always gives the squad a boost as it is a squad game with so many positions to fill and we welcome people of all shapes and sizes. We are a fully inclusive team!
As most players stay with us for three or four years, it is cyclical, but also amazing to see the players grow in confidence and skill throughout their time with the team. We have an amazing and fully qualified coaching staff who make all players welcome and coach them in the basics of the game, and they can then develop accordingly. We also hold classroom sessions prior to on-field sessions.
Q3: Do you think that, because most university courses in the UK are three years (rather than four in the U.S.), British university teams struggle to develop teams to their full potential?
PM: Every BUCS team suffers from the same academic cycle of players graduating, but the key to success is to keep recruiting new players to play alongside the more experienced players and to continue the tradition of being a successful team.
We do have players stay for four years to do Master’s courses, etc., but we are always surprised how many new players instantly fall in love with the game and become our best players, setting a great foundation for years to come.
We also welcome overseas students and currently have several nationalities playing on the team. This is an area I personally think the university should advertise more.
Q4: Over the last few years, interest in American football among both young men and women has significantly increased. Do you think that the technical abilities of players have advanced since you’ve been a coach?
PM: Our coaching staff have coached at all levels, both in the UK and internationally. The ability of the students, both mentally and physically, never ceases to amaze us.
The game is the fastest growing sport in the UK and with having live NFL games in London every year, the current interest and understanding of the game is at an all-time high.
The game attracts players of all genders and we currently have two women on the team, including our new president. One of them won the “This Girl Can” award on campus and they are both great role models.
Q5: Finally, why should Keele Students join the Keele Crusaders?
PM: I personally think it is the greatest sport in the world. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is open to everyone and there is a place for everyone. We are a fully inclusive team and have fully qualified coaches for all positions, in addition to several ex-players wanting to take their coaching qualifications this year, which I am currently organising. The Crusaders are a family like no other, who practice hard, play hard, and really enjoy their socials too! We are also one of the few teams who don’t play midweek as all our games are played on Sundays with official referees; this allows members to play more than one sport on campus.
We also welcome students to join the Crusaders even if they don’t want to play the game. There are plenty of ways you can be a Crusader by helping off the field, at practice, and on game day – these are highly valued members. You also get to ride with us on the road trips, which are definitely not to be missed, especially when we win away from home! We are also developing a non-contact “flag football” team on campus, which is a form of the sport that is growing at an amazing rate.
So, my message would be to come down and say hello and have a look at what we do! All equipment is provided with membership, apart from gum shields and footwear.
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