West Vancouver Highlanders' senior quarterback Ben Corbett is putting up Johnny Franklin-type numbers early in the 2017 campaign. (Marko Jones photo/West Vancouver athletics)
Feature High School Football

First survive, then thrive? West Van Highlanders football regains a steady pulse with 2-0 start

WEST VANCOUVER — It’s noon hour at West Vancouver Secondary and a chance for the Highlanders senior varsity football team to gather for the first meeting of a week filled with gridiron significance.

“We just had a very realistic film session at lunch,” informs West Van co-head coach Shawn Anderson. “It was important for us to celebrate success, but to also realize that we are far from perfect.”

Truer words could not have been delivered in a more timely fashion for the program which has to be considered B.C. high school football’s early-season surprise of the year.

Yes, the Highlanders have virtually matched their entire offensive output from a season ago in just two games, beating both Centennial and W.J. Mouat.

And if they can pull out a win Friday in their home opener against Abbotsford’s Robert Bateman Timberwolves, they will have achieved their first 3-0 start in a decade.

Yet there is something to be said for remaining grounded, for taking the first steps towards re-establishing traditions, and for the current players to understand their role in helping  a program, which for too many seasons seemed to hang on tenterhooks, begin to turn a corner.

Since making a run to the playoffs with a .500 team in 2012, one which featured the dynamic play of quarterback Johnny Franklin and receiver Blake Whitely, West Vancouver had fallen on hard times.

Anderson’s 2013 and ’14 teams, with Dourandish assisting, went a combined 1-15 overall.

The past two seasons, as Anderson stepped back to raise a young family and work on some other non-football related goals, Dourandish coached them to a combined 3-12 mark.

So when you’ve gone a combined 4-27 the past four seasons, a 2-0 start might give you a nosebleed.

And thus the program’s two caretakers want to make sure all feet remain firmly on the ground.

West Vancouver’s starting running back Connor Chapman (50) was forced into duty at centre last week in the team’s win over host WJ Mouat. (Marko Jones/West Van athletics)

ALL HANDS ON DECK

There is a blue-collar feel which runs through the West Vancouver line-up, and it’s one which not only promotes the concept of team, but let’s everyone known that despite some early success, the foundation on which they all stand has barely even begun to settle.

On Friday, in West Vancouver’s 34-23 road win over Mouat, the Highlanders handed over the duties at centre to a promising Grade 11 named Connor Chapman.

Nothing too unusual about that except a week previous, in its 24-6 win in Coquitlam over the Centennial Centaurs, Chapman rushed for 135 yards and also caught a touchdown pass.

“He’s our starting running back and he complained a little about having to wear a number in the 50s,” laughed Dourandish. “But then he went out there and snapped the ball, and he played a good game. He and the rest of the team realize that everyone has to step up, and that if they aren’t getting targets, then someone else on this team is.”

Amazingly, after Chapman banged up his hand later in the game, Ben Corbett, the team’s starting quarterback, went in and finished at centre for the final two series, snapping back to Grade 11 receiver Keelan Hondro, designated as the team’s fifth-string quarterback.

“We’ve played four quarterbacks and six centres over the first two games,” says Anderson, who feels fortunate to have 29 bodies on the roster this season. “It’s been crazy.”

Anderson and Dourandish huddled over the offseason, coming to the conclusion that a lot of changes needed to be made.

Paramount was the ways in which they would communicate their message to the players.

“We made a conscious decision on a more relaxed approach,” Anderson said. “Practice was still going to be tough, but after it was over, we’d be off them. We put the accountability on them, and so now the game was up to them. It’s been a huge improvement.”

BEING THEMSELVES

Back in the 2012 season, West Vancouver had the most dynamic one-two punch in the B.C. high school ranks.

Quarterback Johnny Franklin led the province by passing for 2,413 yards and 26 touchdowns.

Receiver Blake Whiteley led all receivers with 68 catches for 1,118 yards and 16 majors.

Anderson, who has resumed control of the team’s offence upon his return, admits he learned a lot that season in terms of just being who you are as a team.

And that’s why when Corbett won the starting quarterback job, there wasn’t any hesitation as to how the Highlanders were going to play.

“We just said that this year we were not going to be afraid to throw it 85 per cent of the time,” Anderson said. “We’re committed to it, we will live and die by it. Ben Corbett has a cannon for an arm, so let’s let him unload it and then work with him on his accuracy in the short-passing game.”

No telling where it will all lead, but through two games, Corbett is hitting on 60 per cent of his passes (27-of-45) for 479 yards and six touchdowns.

It’s a pace, which if maintained, would have him surpass Franklin’s numbers of five seasons ago.

Corbett’s targets have been especially sure-handed early, and they comprise a foursome of Nick Zen, Ethan Johnston, Ben Welsh and Aidan Izadi.

Defensively, senior middle linebacker Ryerson Wallace and Grade 11 linebacker Ben Croasdale have led the defence in tackles.

Just a season ago, West Vancouver lost 55-0 to Abbotsford, and against three of its North Shore rivals lost 37-7 to Argyle, 43-0 to Windsor and 49-0 to Handsworth.

Its 58 points scored through two games this season are just two fewer than the 60 they scored all of last season.

So is this the start of a resurgence in West Vancouver football, or another spike in talent more akin to the rise of the 2012 program?

“That has been one of the main conversations Shawn and I have had for the last four years,” begins Dourandish. “The term ‘chicken or the egg’ comes up a lot. Do you need success first, or do you need buy-in first?

“Obviously, success helps and I’m not talking about winning titles, just being competitive and not getting embarrassed,” he continued. “If you’re a kid watching in the stands and you see your team getting walked over, I am not sure you want to join that. But if you see a team, even if they might be losing, but they are chanting and supporting each other, that’s a family you want to join.”

There have been more than a few occasions over the past few seasons in which Highlanders football could rightly be termed ‘at risk’.

It’s survival and subsequent success belongs to its caretakers, and for that, its players should be especially grateful.

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