Top of the pile in the Waikato-Bay of Plenty senior men’s Loaded Premiership, narrowly beaten finalists in the central North Island secondary schools Super 8 competition, and on their way to September’s National Championships while backing themselves to win it.
This season is rapidly turning into an eye-opening one for Tauranga Boys College’s First XI.
In the next tier down from football’s Northern League, in which only one Bay of Plenty club, Tauranga City, competes, the WaiBOP Premiership is home to the region’s top senior men players – and the College team is currently three points clear at the top of it.
It’s not an entirely reliable picture, as they’ve played two more matches than their nearest challengers, title-favourites Papamoa. Nevertheless, the fact they are currently being owned by a bunch of schoolboys is causing some head-scratching around the league.
It’s not such a surprise to see them footing it on skill, but how do they cope with the physicality of experienced veterans?
“They just do,” says coach Alex Bryant. “They mostly just deal with it. We don’t often get boys complaining. Some boys do get kicked more than others, but that’s just the nature of football.
“The school has a good conditioning programme that our young players have had access to for a few years, so they’re probably stronger and physically more ready.”
So the bad news for opposition teams who may expect to be facing skilful but lightweight Boys College players is they’d better get used to dealing with stronger and tougher schoolboys as well.
Not only are they leading the league, they’re scoring goals for fun. They’ve netted 43 goals in their 13 matches - an average of 3.3 and almost a goal-per-game higher than Papamoa’s average.
“We work hard at playing a progressive, possession style of football,” says Alex.
“We encourage the boys to get forward, make forward passes and take players on in key areas. We also encourage lots of movement off the ball to create angles.
“One of our key coaching philosophies is to encourage the boys to express themselves.”
A feature of the team’s style is the number of different goalscorers finding the net each week. They try to avoid ‘over-coaching’ the boys, Alex says, and getting them to play in a certain way.
“We like to encourage the boys to have a bit of flair and take players on. The important thing is for the young fellas to enjoy the game like that.”
A core of players who’ve been around a while is a key factor in the team’s success. A group of three Year 13s, skipper Lewis Read, Adam Davidson and Alex Elliot, have been around the team since Year Ten.
“I think probably the biggest thing with this year’s team is we’ve got a great deal of experience,” adds Alex. “We’ve got a lot of Year 13s, and a lot of boys that were in the team last year.
“So all the boys have experience, they’re all very committed, they worked hard over summer and they’ve got a great culture. They’re all good mates as well.”
Another group of Year 12s is ready to step up to leadership roles next year, so the College has some continuity planned.
“Scott Hawkins is a very good centre back, while Stanley Rust does well for us in the midfield,” Alex says.
Regular goalkeeper Harry Donald is in the younger group, as is Riley Bidois, who plays Northern League football at Tauranga City.
“He plays schoolboy games with us and it’s a good boost to have him around.”
While the results they’ve been achieving this year have been remarkable, the process matters just as much for Alex.
“As coaches we obviously want to win, but the performances and the process for us are very important. “Winning the league is a lofty goal for us – at the start of the season we certainly didn’t think we’d be there or thereabouts – but it’s certainly something that we’re going to push towards.”
Not at all costs though, says Alex. “We are a schoolboy side, so it’s about teaching the boys the game and giving guys opportunities.”
The experience gained from competing in the WaiBOP Premiership is priceless in their inter-school competitions.
Falling short 3-2 in the Super 8 final against old nemesis Hamilton Boys High was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after edging them 1-0 to qualify for the national champs the week before. Coming home from the Christchurch tournament in September with the title, though, is their aim.
“Hamilton are the reigning national champions, and we’ve had three games with them and had some really good tussles. We beat Auckland school Westlake Boys High 6-1 and they’ve been past national champions.”
Sacred Heart and St Kentigerns of Auckland are particularly strong, but outside of that, Alex believes, they fear no-one.
The scheduling of the WaiBOP Premiership means that around the same time as the national champs they will be dealing with the climax of the league, including, owing to an early season postponement, two engagements with Papamoa.
Juggling the team’s playing resources will be a challenge for Alex and his fellow coaches, but not one they’re unfamiliar with. In fact, as the boys’ development as footballers is the name of the game, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We certainly don’t pick the same 11 each week and let three or four guys sit on the bench and do nothing. That doesn’t help them or anybody. Every boy gets an opportunity, I’m a big believer in that.”
Don’t be too surprised if the squad depth they’ve produced as a result of that philosophy brings home a national secondary schools championship and a WaiBOP Premiership title, leaving the league’s wily veterans with a little more head-scratching to do.