By Justin Prince
The Windsor AKO Fratmen has hopes of have a true sense of home field for the team after officially announcing their partnership with École secondaire catholique E.J. Lajeunesse.
The Fratmen announced their training camp and practice facility would be operated at the school as part of a partnership starting on July 20. The school could also potentially host some of the Fratmen’s Ontario Football Conference regular season games if the Alpha Kai Omega Fraternity’s renovations of Windsor Stadium aren’t completed in time. Lajeunesse and AKO Fratmen staff members were in attendance for the official announcement July 13.
“It’s much needed,” said Fratmen president and owner Mike Morencie after the press conference. “We were out there looking for a place (to play) with the renovations to Windsor Stadium and construction. It wasn’t in our best interests to be down there at the stadium anymore … we found out Lajeunesse was looking to do some community partnerships and we were looking to get involved in one, so it was a pretty natural fit.”
As part of the partnership, the Fratmen will have access to the school’s classrooms, auditorium and lockers rooms for team meetings and coaching seminars while the team in turn will be giving students access to any equipment they bring to the facility. The school was previously planning to upgrade the sports fields in the back of the school to bring them up to standard. The Conseil Scolaire Catholique Providence also wanted Lajeunesse to potentially have its football games held on the school grounds next year. Currently, parts of the grass for the soccer fields at the back of the school are worn down while other parts are covered with white clover.
“We’ve been exploring now for a couple of years the possibility of partnership for developing both the soccer and football field in the back,” said Joe Picard, the director of education for the school board. “When that opportunity came forward, after a fair amount of discussions and talks, it was quite obvious to both partners that with this agreement, it was going to be a win-win situation.”
Morencie said the negotiations for the partnership began in a “kind of crazy” way while at a sporting goods store in early May. He said he was talking to someone about another deal which fell through when Lajeunesse principal Tom Couvillon overheard his conversation. Couvillon then called Picard immediately, which led to the negotiations for the partnership. The move-in process for the team started by July 3.
“This opportunity for a partnership has been a great experience,” said Couvillon. “Young people, our students, the Fratmen players will all benefit from what we have in place here.”
The partnership will give the Fratmen a chance for stability. Morencie said while the team has been successful on the field having won the past two OFC championships, it has been a “nightmare” off the field.
The team played at Alumni Field at the University of Windsor for two years before moving its games to Windsor Stadium in 2012. It later moved its practices to the facility, but didn’t gain full access to the stadium until 2014. The AKO Fraternity had reached a 20-year lease agreement with the Greater Essex County District School Board in February for the stadium, but is still doing renovations to it, which includes replacing the grass field with a turf surface and other repairs. That deal is still in place as the team is a separate entity of the fraternity and was never part of the agreement according to Scott Scantlebury, public relations officer for the GECDSB.
The team had also been negotiating with St. Clair College for a potential stadium deal, but those negotiations were put on hold earlier this year. All the moves have put a strain on fan support because they didn’t know where the team was playing.
“A couple years ago, we were in a situation where our coach’s office at the stadium was a picnic table under a tree outside our dressing room. A whole year in 2013, we met under a picnic table,” said Morencie. “We’ve come a long way since meeting at that picnic table.”
Morencie had said prior to the announcement that “you’d need a scorecard to figure out all the options” the Fratmen had. He said the partnership with Lajeunesse was the most immediate option for the team.
“I hope to stay here for years and years. I’d like to set down roots. I’m tired,” said Morencie. “This is our fifth change in five years … We’re tired of moving. We’re tired of building dressing rooms … I hope I’ve built my last dressing room for a while.”
The goal is to have everything ready to go by August for both the Fratmen and Lajeunesse teams. Picard hopes the school will eventually be able to build a full stadium with separate dressing rooms and storage areas on the school. He said the stadium idea is in the planning stages and its design will have to consider the needs for both the Fratmen and EJL’s school teams. The school will be ready to host any of the Fratmen’s home games if necessary and Picard is confident it will at least host games for the first part of the season.
“It all depends on what fundraising you can do and what grants you can get” said Picard. “When you start this plan, everyone dreams big and they want Ford Field, but we have to be quite reasonable as well.”
While the partnership will be on a year-to-year basis, Morencie hopes to stay at the school for at least the next while.
“We’ve never been able to call any place our home and it’s tough to run a football program when you’re not in control of your situation,” said Morencie. “I finally feel like we’re in control of our situation and I think it’s going to make us better.”
The AKO Fratmen’s first game of the 2015 season will be against the Hamilton Hurricanes on Aug. 16 at Tim Horton’s Field. The Fratmen’s first home game against the London Beefeaters will be on Aug. 22.