VANCOUVER — Ben Hladik is so attuned to everything he does as a football player, that even a discussion of his jersey number with the UBC Thunderbirds is important enough to provide a most thoughtful answer.
“I wore 86 in high school because I was a receiver,” the 6-foot-4, 225 pound true freshman from Vernon Secondary begins. “But now I’m a linebacker and I figure 52 is a great linebacker number. There’s Ray Lewis, Khalil Mack. You just have to grow into it.”
In high school, going both ways on offence and defence is a reality, and all too often, a player’s offensive position will dictate his number.
Yet as good as he was offensively over a prep career in which he helped the Panthers to a spot in last season’s Subway Bowl B.C. AA championship final, there was no question that his long-range future was on the defensive side of the ball.
To say he’s delivered on that would be a gross understatement.
Earlier this week, Hladik was named the Canada West’ s defensive Player of the Week following his 9.5 tackle performance in the ‘Birds Hardy Cup semifinal win last Saturday against Regina.
This Saturday (12 noon Pacific), the stakes get even larger as the ‘Birds travel to Calgary to face the Dinos in a Hardy Cup clash which gives its winner a chance to host the national semifinal Mitchell Bowl the following week.
“He is a stud, look at that kid, he’s 18 years old,” exclaimed UBC head coach Blake Nill after last Saturday’s win. “He wasn’t even rated that highly. But I thought he was a blue-chipper.”
So much so that Nill made him the very first signing of the current freshman class, announcing Hladik’s name the same week that he began his Grade 12 classes at Vernon back in September of 2016.
“I told Ben before (fall) camp started that the cream always rises to the top,” said Sean Smith, Hladik’s high school coach for five seasons at Vernon Secondary, “and in his case it definitely has. He is the complete package, and because he played for a small Double-A school, he didn’t get the publicity. But to me, it was a telling sign that both top Canada West teams (Calgary and UBC) courted him early.”
In mid-August, Hladik was beginning to dabble on special teams and was chalked in as second-string at the SAM linebacker spot.
In UBC’s second conference game of the season, a 32-18 win over Manitoba, Hladik had 6.5 tackles and a fumble recovery, and no one has been able to hold him back since.
Now firmly ensconced as a starter in the heart of the UBC defence, Hladik has opened his UBC career with the kind of momentum that makes you think he’ll be one of the program’s all-timers by the time he’s ready to play at the next level.
“It gave me confidence coming in because I knew that coach (Nill) wanted me,” said Hladik of being Nill’s first recruit for the 2017 campaign. “And (UBC defensive coordinator) coach (Pat) Tracy has put me in the best position to play. I knew that all I had to do was work hard in the offseason and bring that into the season.”
As is the case with fellow rookies like Payton LaGrange and Bashiru Sise-Odaa in the secondary, and Diego Altorre along the defensive line, Hladik has shown himself to be a player beyond his years.
Of course anyone who saw him play for Vernon’s Panthers in high school knew that to already be the case.
Smith, in fact, figures 2016 could have been Hladik’s rookie season in U Sports.
“Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve got ’til its gone,” said Smith, “but in Ben’s case, I knew what I had and I counted my blessings everyday he suited up for me. He could have played university ball last year and I think his commitment off the field was not a whole lot different than it is now.
“He was always naturally gifted in terms of genetics and athleticism,” added Smith, “but unlike so many others, he committed himself at a young age to make the most of what he was given. He was a workout warrior since Grade 10 and he actually scared me with the stuff he was doing to push the limits with his training. The amount of film study he did as a high school kid was impressive and I think it allowed him to use his anticipation skills and play faster. So, having said that, it was like having a university player on the field for me.”
Hladik senses how quickly success has come at the collegiate level, and he is part of the reason that his new team is regaining the stride it showed late in 2015 en route to a Vanier Cup title.
Yet he is a true football player and thus knows how elusive championships really are.
Last season, the Vernon Panthers were a win away from becoming B.C.’s first up-country team in 26 years to win a B.C. Subway Bowl title, yet it didn’t happen following a loss to the Seaquam Seahawks at B.C. Place Stadium.
Calgary is the favourite, they’re at home, and they have owned UBC over the most recent chapter of their shared football history.
Youth, however, doesn’t tend to dwell on such things, and in Hladik’s case, this all brand new territory for him.
“I just feel blessed to have made the playoffs,” he said. “I have never experienced anything like this in my football career.”
Come Saturday, he’ll be playing to help his new team gain a berth into the national semifinals, yet at the same time he’s going to be inspiring all of those young players back in his hometown.
Hladik is quick to show his roots are still firmly planted in Okanagan soil.
“For five years I played for coach Smith and he always gave us the attention when we needed it,” said Hladik, whose younger brother Bradley is a star on this season’s No. 2-ranked Panthers squad. “He always put us before the rest of his life during the football season and I will always remember that. Hopefully (the Panthers) make a really deep run into the playoffs and I can actually go and watch a game.”
Barely out of high school himself, Ben Hladik has wasted no time in scaling some pretty lofty heights.
Yet the most telling part of all is that anyone who knows him well says the same thing: In this case, there was no luck involved.
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