Pulling The Flag

A Winning Philosophy Heads To Britbowl

With just over a week to go until Britbowl, Marlow Wolves head coach Sam Mckee took time out from preparing the Wolves to give his thoughts on his team, rivals, the league and the ordeal of his long-suffering missus at being the better half to a Lions fan.

Hi Sam, firstly let me congratulate you on making Britbowl with both the juniors and cadet teams. You must be extremely pleased?
Thanks very much! I am pleased. I’m also extremely nervous. We’ve had a wonderful year but nothing has been won and we can still fall short of expectations. I am delighted with the boys, but I never want us as a programme to be satisfied with simply making the playoffs. I cannot wait for the Britbowl to get here. So it is equal parts pleased and nervous.
 
How would you access the 2014 regular season on the whole?
It was immensely challenging. For the Youth Flag team, not only did we have to deal with the departure of 4/5 of the starters on the magnificent defense of last year but also some key leaders. Then we had so much rain in the new year that we lost 6 of 9 training sessions. Although we started well I think we suffered a lot from so much lost training to start the year. The sheer talent and quality of the South has been amazing to see. 
 
The London Warriors and Horsham Barbarians have been relentless, pushing the division title all the way to the wire, whilst the London Blitz improved significantly in every tournament. I am so proud we won the division title as it took everything we had to get it.
 
For the Cadets, 10-0 may look like an easy ride but it wasn’t. In many games with the Blitz we were losing at half time but we always managed to rally. Hands down Owen Barrett is the best Cadet player we have ever had.
 
10-0 Cadets
How does the level of competition this year compare with previous seasons?
It has gone up this year. We won 3 tournaments, the Warriors won one and Horsham won one but every week was a huge tussle. You cannot drift for a moment in the South. I think the difference has been the overall quality of the teams. I’ve seen a lot of teams that are dependent on one or two outstanding players, but this year there have been teams that are fundamentally sound without any area of weakness.
Marlow seem to have their finger in all the pies as it were this year, with the kitted team also seeded as the number one team going into Britbowl. What are you feeding them down in High Wycombe?
I don’t know, but I should start eating whatever it is!
 
This season is in many ways the culmination of many years of hard graft. This is the first year that the cycle has gone the full way round in Marlow. The kitted team is built on guys that were Cadets when we started. They are now outstanding, smart, athletic football players in their young prime. 
 
In theory this is how we always want it to work: recruiting from 8 years old, aggressively scouting and recruiting from local schools and growing the local presence to build the roster but developing outstanding players from Cadet upwards. If you succeed then you become not a great team every now and then, but a strong programme every year across all ages.
 
This is the 2nd time we’ve had all 3 teams make the Britbowl but the first that they all won their respective divisions. The ideal is that this is the normality going forward.
 
If the cadets make the final and win, that will see them win five times in a row. How do you address the challenge of recruitment and bringing through such talented players?
Cadet is the priority programme. If you want to succeed for years then it starts and ends with the Cadets. Simply put, we depend on winning the Cadet title every year. We have to! Recruiting there is my first priority with every schools club and in scouting each year. If we won other Britbowl championships but lost there it would sting a lot despite the success. I think winning it in 2010 set the tone for us locally and gave us a solid platform here.
 
2013 Champions

The Cadet team seemingly won their division quite comfortably. How do you access the threat of old rivals Coventry Cougars, who you will play in the Semi Finals?
Looking at the playoffs any of the 4 Cadet teams can win it all. Scott and I are expecting this to be the most competitive finals yet. We have the utmost respect for the Cougars and they are our best friends in the league. They share the same values as us and were the team that welcomed us with open arms when we joined the league and gave us friendlies. If they kick our butts we certainly wouldn’t begrudge them the victory! Having said that we expect a very tough game and are working our guys hard for the Britbowl.
 
Should they make it through, the winners will likely face the well storied franchise the Chorley Buccaneers. What are your thoughts on the Lancashire outfit?
Chorley share the same Cadet philosophy as us. You can see by their numbers that they put immense value on recruiting and developing as young as possible. The terrifying thing about Chorley is that every year they seem to have so much speed.
 
As a neutral fan of the game it is a massive shame that Chorley did not win a Britbowl in the past 3 years as they deserve it as a programme for the work they have put in and the talent they have developed. Whoever faces them will need to play their absolute best, however do not write off the London Blitz. They have some great play-makers and got better every week. If they won the Britbowl it would not be a shock to me.
 
Moving on to the juniors. Last year saw the Marlow juniors win their first Britbowl at that level. How do you assess your chances of a repeat this year?
I don’t think anything could compare with last year. It was the perfect season with such wonderful stories running through it. It will always stand alone. They will always be the greatest in my eyes. They had everything, and now many of them are making noise in the kitted programme.
 
I think we have as good a chance as anyone. The goal is not to win championships but to build dynasties and I want the programme to become that, strengthening the foundations as we go. As with the Cadets though I think this is the most loaded playoffs yet. In the playoffs we face a team that has never faced us and wouldn’t fear us, essentially playing at home. I’m not looking beyond that game with the Mustangs.
 
Hands up if you want another championship
The Horsham Barbarians gave you a real run for your money for the number one spot in the league this year. Where would you put Horsham in terms of their chances of winning the competition?
Horsham are the best team we have ever faced, emphasis on the word team. They don’t have any weaknesses and are amazingly well coached. They all go to the same school and have such a beautiful chemistry and togetherness on the field. They don’t make any mistakes. The games we won against them were when we played at our best. They have a great chance of winning the Britbowl.
 
This year will see the Coventry Cougars lose the likes of Kellie Barrett, Sarah Wakelin, George Tolley (once of Studley Bearcats), plus your own team lose Jacob Few to age. How do you replace such leaders within a team going forward?
You keep the Cadet pipeline pumping! We recruit pretty well I think, but the foundations of the youth flag team are laid on the Cadets coming through. We face a challenge that Chorley and the Blitz face in that when our guys turn 14/15 they often move on to kitted. This means our youth flag team has to be built year on year on the 13/14 year olds which makes it hard to win against older players. 
 
Sometimes you get guys who love flag so much that kitted football doesn’t interest them. These guys then have to be leaders and play like veterans. There is only one Jacob Few though! You don’t replace him.
 
George Tolley (left) and Jacob Few (right)
The two main power houses of kitted football London Warriors and Blitz both seemed to take a step in the right direction this year, like yourselves and Doncaster, how does having a kitted based background help the club?
Having a kitted team helps you recruit and have visibility as a programme but it makes it hard to keep players on the youth flag team. There is a great synergy between the different teams in the Marlow Wolves programme and we take pride in each other. 
 
We are one of the few programmes I have come across where the kitted guys don’t play flag as well. We want to maximise opportunity and playing time by ensuring our kitted guys don’t play flag simultaneously. 
 
I hope after this year that the Wolves will be the pride of the South for kitted and the standard for excellence there.
 
There were a lot of youth and cadet teams that couldn’t commit to entering the league this year such as, Woodham Warriors, Calderdale Knights and Coventry Jets. What in your thoughts are the main obstructions from these teams?
Gosh, I wish I knew the answer to that question. You look at the growth of the youth kitted league in the past 5 years and compare it with the growth of youth flag and you wish they were closer. Unfortunately this is still a man’s game in the UK. There should be teams all over the country for under 14s but there is not the exposure and investment. 
 
This league should be full of teams from all over with divisions in every region. No one should have to drive more than an hour to find a team to play, but for some reason we aren’t there yet. No doubt there are the children hungry to play. I think the Wolves are a great example of how a team can emerge from nowhere and become a very large programme. Hopefully these teams that couldn’t quite start this year will get their chance next year.
 
Hopefully 2015 will see some of these teams return and some new faces enter the league such as my own cadet team, Leicester Huntsmen and Leeds Academy set up. Is the future bright for youth flag football?
It is, because the interest in the sport is so high. Right now the league is built on the shoulder of amazing volunteers and parents, school teachers and ex-players who want to give kids a chance. We just need more of them, and more national exposure.
 
There doesn’t seem to be the same focus on youth flag in Scotland as there is South of the border, Have you any thoughts on this?
I’m sure they must be there, and maybe we simply don’t hear about them? The Scottish teams in youth kitted are wonderful and they bring so much to the finals, I’d love to see that in flag too.
 
Focusing more on yourself, you are heading in the right direction to overtake Andrew Gambrill’s record as the top youth coach in Britain. Is Mrs Mckee getting fed up of all the silverware sitting on her mantelpiece just yet?
I don’t know about that! Andy is a real hero to me. Before the Wolves really existed I met him at the BAFCA Convention and he gave me his number. We then got a friendly with his Jets and the Cougars. We lost our first 7 friendly games with most against them and he invited us to join the league and we never looked back. He is so responsible for much of the development and now look at what he has done with the women’s game. He is an encourager of growth and an encourager of people. If I can achieve half of that in my small sphere of influence I’d be amazed.
 
The Coach
As for Mrs McKee she has been with me before I even knew about American Football and has done nothing but support me, encourage me and invest in me. She’s just like Mrs Taylor in Friday Night Lights really, the best wife a coach could have. Sadly for her it has meant being a Detroit Lions fan! But at least the Wolves win sometimes… 
 
I really feel like I’m just getting started. When I began I wanted to eventually coach 11v11 kitted and university football and now my heart really is with Cadet football and under 14s. I’d love to coach for GB. As a youth worker really I want to see players succeed. This year we have had our first players make it to the USA and get scholarships and I was more proud of that than any Britbowl. 
 
My brother plays QB for Bucks University and these things move my heart more than wins. The Wolves has been a dream come true and so much more, but I feel that the programme is just beginning to take off.
 
Lastly, you recently posted on Facebook your favourite memories of the past years. If you could share your favourite memory from this year’s regular season what would that be?
This might sound strange seeing as it was a loss but for the youth flag team I think tournament 4 at the London Warriors. 
 
We were losing 19-0 at halftime to Horsham and hadn’t gained a first down. We were just playing awful and the defence had to hang on. We threw 4 interceptions by halftime. 
 
At halftime we had a great chat and immediately started to put things right. We ran out of time and lost the game but then played our best football of the season in the next two games and won by a big margin to give ourselves a chance at retaking the division at tournament 5, which we did. 
 
There was a clear switch at half time of that game and we showed so much after that. Hopefully the best is still to come. If we do win the Britbowl this youth flag team will certainly have earned it.
Marlow Wolves
The draw for the youth final four is:

Cadets
 
Coventry Cougars @ Marlow Wolves
 
London Blitz @ Chorley Buccaneers Redbeards
 
Juniors
 
Doncaster Mustangs @ Marlow Wolves
Horsham Barbarians @ Coventry Cougars

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