Building the Vernon Panthers into a powerhouse provincial AA football program has happened, in large part, through the synergistic efforts and outreach of its longtime head coach.
Yet Sean Smith is the first to admit that geography has been a hurdle not as easily overcome in his program’s quest to bring a B.C. senior varsity Subway Bowl title to the Okanagan city.
Yes, Smith will bus almost 2,000 kilometres this week with various players and coaches from VSS for back-to-back return trips to the Greater Vancouver area for provincial semifinal games at both the junior and senior varsity levels.
Yet more than that, at the senior varsity level, the biggest thing the Panthers have had to try to overcome are the effects of a late season lull within its own schedule, brought on by byes, inevitable cancellations and in general, a lack of competition in their neck of the woods, one which is drastically contrasted by what teams from the Lower Mainland see on a weekly basis for three months.
The topic is especially germane this week as Vernon prepares to meet Abbotsford in a battle of the Panthers, one of two Subway Bowl AA semifinals on Saturday (12 p.m.) under the dome. (full schedule below)
Bring up the name of dynamic Abby running back Samwel Uko, who last week rushed for four scores in a 46-7 win over Richmond’s Hugh Boyd Trojans, and Smith addresses the difficulties of preparing to meet such a game-breaking force.
“Their running back is pretty special and it becomes very special playing against those types of guys because we don’t get to play them a lot,” says Smith, who harkened back to last season’s AA championship final in which his team fell to a crew of Seaquam Seahawks fuelled by their talented twins, Jalen and Tyson Philpot.
“It is a lot like playing against the Philpots and we hadn’t had the experience of playing against such dynamic guys. To bring it like they do, it takes a while to adjust to it, and in the first half of the finals, we were flat-footed, and not taking angles. So that’s got to be any team’s biggest concern coming in to face (Uko), is that you have to corral him. You’re not going to shut him down, but you have to limit him as much as possible.”
It’s a credit to the growing stature of the Vernon program that one season after losing a generational talent like UBC freshman linebacker Ben Hladik to graduation, here the Okanagan’s Panthers are again.
They were very impressive in a 20-6 win over a Nananimo-John Barsby squad whose only loss on the season had been to No. 1-ranked Windsor.
But what might have been even more notable was the fact that after beating a solid Hugh Boyd team 31-13 on Sept. 22, Vernon got just one competitive game (a 14-7 win over Clarence Fulton Oct. 27) over an eight-week span heading into its victory over John Barsby last Saturday.
And now comes a date on the B.C. Place rug with Abby, where Uko is winding up his high school career kind of like the way Barry Sanders wrapped up his back in Wichita, Kan., circa 1985. In eight games, Uko has rushed for 1,378 yards and 21 majors.
As well, Abbotsford showed, behind the arm Ethan Anderson, who prepped for senior varsity during his younger days in Vernon, that its passing game is going to be a huge ingredient.
Vernon, however, isn’t exactly shy of talent itself.
It has, however, taken much of the season to become as full formed as its heading into Saturday since two of those players — quarterback Thomas Hyett and running back Chareles Lemay — are Grade 11s.
That pair, along with senior Bradley Haldik, the younger brother of Ben, have been instrumental in keeping Vernon with a perfect 6-0 record against B.C. competition.
“If we go back to the spring, there were concerns that we had some big holes to fill and how the returning players were going to respond,” said Smith. “What’s happened is that we have really had a group effort. There hasn’t been any one guy in the way that Ben was our guy last year. We have shared the load and lots have stepped up.”
Brad Hladik, playing at both tight end and linebacker, has led the team in both catches and receiving yards with 29 grabs for 537 yards and four scores over six games.
Hyett has been masterful at quarterback, a position he took on out of necessity last season.
He’s gone 73-of-100 for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns against just three picks.
A 73 per cent completion percentage?
“And it’s legit,” says Smith. “He takes care of the ball. Because he hadn’t really played up until last season, he’s put in tons of time, and he has taken a step up this year in terms of his recognition of defensive coverages.”
Lemay, another Grade 11, has been the workhorse out of the offensive backfield where he rushed for 715 yards and averaged almost 120 ypg in the regular season to go along with 10 touchdowns.
He’s also manning a linebacker spot with Hladik and Drew Mackenzie, and he’s leading the team in tackles with 28.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve said this season ‘No too many linebackers could make a play like that,’” Smith says of 5-foot-11, 185-pound Lemay.
“He’s a chiseled work-out machine,” said Smith. “He looks like a weight lifter with a smaller frame. Has he ever come around. I would say that he and Thomas are combined, the two kids we’ve had here who have improved the most ever in terms of a shorter, 18-month period.”
Abbotsford has faced the likes of AAA No. 2 St. Thomas More and AA No. 1 Windsor already this season. And they played solid defence last week in the dome against Hugh Boyd.
They haven’t been ranked No. 2 the majority of the season for no reason and they will bring a busload of talent to B.C. Place on Saturday.
Their motto for the day will be just like the Boy Scouts, because right off the opening kick-off, they have to ‘Be Prepared’.
SUBWAY BOWL 2017
SEMIFINALS (All games at BC Place Stadium)
9:30 a.m. – Eric Hamber vs. Spectrum (Tier-2) (final)
12:00 p.m. – No. 2 Vernon vs. No. 3 Abbotsford (AA)
2:30 p.m. – No. 5 G.W. Graham vs. No. 1 Windsor (AA)
5:00 p.m. – No. 3 South Delta vs. No. 1 New Westminster (AAA)
7:30 p.m. – No. 7 Terry Fox vs. No. 2 St. Thomas More (AAA)
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