Royal Oak Shrine football coach Oscar Olejniczak speaks to his team during a recent practice. Despite playing with just 13 kids, the Knights managed to finish the regular season with a 4-2 overall record.

Royal Oak Shrine football coach Oscar Olejniczak speaks to his team during a recent practice. Despite playing with just 13 kids, the Knights managed to finish the regular season with a 4-2 overall record.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Shrine football succeeding despite low numbers

By: Jacob Herbert | Royal Oak Review | Published October 27, 2020

 Shrine quarterback Conor Benson is pictured during a recent practice in Shrine’s gym. The Knights will play Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in the first round of the state playoffs.

Shrine quarterback Conor Benson is pictured during a recent practice in Shrine’s gym. The Knights will play Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in the first round of the state playoffs.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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ROYAL OAK — From a player turnout perspective, the current season that Royal Oak Shrine football is having was not expected. Coach Oscar Olejniczak was hoping for roughly 20 kids to come out to practice when the season started.

When things got underway, the Knights had just 13 players, but they didn’t let that stop them from turning in an impressive regular season. Shrine finished 4-2 overall and occupied second place in the Catholic High School League Intersectional 2 Division behind undefeated powerhouse Clarkston Everest Collegiate.

“I’m very proud of how the guys on the field are competing and giving maximum effort,” Olejniczak said. “I’m proud of the way they’re fighting through it and coming back out here each week to play.”

Olejniczak said the team wouldn’t have reached the heights it has this season without its defense. Withholding the 41 points given up against Everest Collegiate, the Knights have not let an opponent score more than 14 points in a game.

Shrine started out the season by blanking Marine City Cardinal Mooney 48-0, followed that up with a 32-12 win over Allen Park Cabrini and a 12-7 win over Leslie High. The team also got a forfeit victory over Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes.

“Defensively we’ve been outstanding other than the Clarkston game,” Olejniczak said. “We’ve had great game plans and have been very physical. We’re playing guys on the offensive and defensive line that have never played those positions before. It’s been challenging, but we haven’t quit. It’s impressive.”

One standout player on the defensive side of the ball has been defensive lineman Frank Firek. The sophomore racked up 5.5 sacks in the game against Leslie, 1.5 more sacks and he would have tied the all-time Michigan High School Athletic Association record for sacks in a single game. Olejniczak estimated Firek has eight or nine sacks total on the season.

Other top players on the team have been junior offensive lineman/linebacker Aaron Smith and senior wideout/defensive end Alex Armenio, who played Shrine’s regular-season finale against Detroit Communication Media Arts with one hand wrapped up in a cast.

“He (Smith) and Alex Armenio have been our two best players,” Olejniczak said. “They’re producing on both sides of the ball at a very high level. We’re not big on awards around here, but if those two aren’t All-State, there’s something wrong.”

Leadership has also been a key contributing factor to the success the Knights have seen. Quarterback Conor Benson is another leader not to be lost in the shuffle. Benson has had to embrace an expanded role on the field and is following through in every way he's been asked to.

"Conor Benson has been our starting quarterback and one of our best players for the last three years," Olejniczak said. "Because of our numbers, he's been asked to play defense as well this year and has done a great job on both sides of the ball."

While some teams may feel some sense of defeat playing with small numbers, Shrine is choosing to let that motivate it.

“Everybody has bought in for the most part because our numbers are so low,” Armenio said. “Everybody has to do their job for us to get a win.”

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