NEW WESTMINSTER — When the Hyacks huddled with head coach Farhan Lalji last Saturday in North Delta following their 28-13 win over the host Seaquam Seahawks, it didn’t take long before a certain topic was introduced within the post-game conversation.
No. 2 New Westminster’s win over No. 4 Seaquam, coupled with the previous night’s result which saw No. 1 Terry Fox lose to No. 5 St. Thomas More seemed to point towards one likely conclusion upon release of the Varsity Letters B.C. High School Football Triple A rankings over the coming days.
“We addressed that possibility the second the game ended,” Lalji said earlier this week as New Westminster did as expected Thursday and ascended to the top of the rankings for just the second time since the program’s 2003 re-birth.
“We knew what had happened the night before with Fox,” continued Lalji, “so we talked to the kids about how unimportant (rankings) are, and that we just need to focus on our game and our process.”
Lalji has always been a terrific ambassador of the game, one who realizes that rankings — for all of those outside of any team’s individual huddle — are an essential part of B.C. high school football’s visibility and relevancy.
Yet with so many more big games remaining in a Western Conference filled with parity, he did well to remind his players that a No. 1 ranking also serves to paint the biggest possible target for the opposition.
Back in 2009, as part of a 9-0 season-opening spurt, New West moved into the No. 1 slot in the rankings by mid September and maintained it for five straight weeks before being beaten 35-20 in a Halloween road clash with Vancouver College.
This Friday, at Mercer Stadium (7:30 p.m.), the Hyacks will get a stiff challenge from East Van’s Notre Dame Jugglers (4-1), whose only loss this season came at the hands of Seaquam.
Notre Dame is being coached this season by new head coach Denis Kelly, B.C.’s elder statesman at the position, and Lalji admits there is plenty to prepare for.
“Denis knows how to take advantage of matchups and he puts his guys in good position to win,” said Lalji who opposed Kelly for many seasons as he turned Abbotsford’s Eastern Conference W.J. Mouat Hawks into a provincial powerhouse. “He just got inducted into the (B.C. Football) Hall of Fame and that is no fluke. He has been so good for so long. The older he gets, the smarter he gets.”
The Jugglers are young, led by Grade 11s Will Clarke at quarterback and Jerrell Cummings at running back.
“We faced the Philpots last week,” Lalji referenced of the Seahawks dynamic twins Tyson and Jalen, and they have some others, too. Notre Dame is not that different. Cummings and Clarke are two high-end skill kids. Any time you face an athletic quarterback, that is a challenge and Will has that escapability factor and the ability to throw on the run.
“And No. 32, (senior Brice) Pumares is a hard-nosed runner that doesn’t go down easily. And then there’s (linebacker Cameron) Mah and (defensive lineman Pauljeet) Dhami, two of their bigger kids, who can cause similar types of challenges.”
Thus, from the Hyacks’ perspective, winning as a No. 1-ranked team will require an even greater sense of purpose.
And to that end, Lalji says the team is coming off perhaps its most encouraging half of play this season, the second-half last Saturday against Seaquam in which it shutout the hosts 16-0 en route to its comeback win.
“I guess the best way to describe us is that our defence has been good and we have been very timely to make the right plays at the right time,” said Lalji. “We haven’t played a complete game yet, but we want to keep working towards that. We took a tangible step towards that in the second half last week.”
Powered against Seaquam by senior running back Sammy Sidhu, who rushed for 187 yards and all four of his teams touchdowns, the Hyacks seemed to carry the spirit of that victory into practice this week.
“If you can be as enthusiastic as humanly possible without causing distraction, that is the ultimate win within a given game or practice,” Lalji said Wednesday. “We had that yesterday. It was one of the best practices we’ve had all season.”
Kelly’s teams have been all about consistency, and he is seeing many of the same hallmarks in the current Hyacks whose success, he says, comes from their unwavering belief in sticking to a plan.
“New West has had a very competitive program largely because of the consistency of their coaching and overall organization,” Kelly said. “They have kept high expectations over the years regardless of talent level. The players know what to expect and buy in to the program. They are experiencing an extremely high talent level in their senior grades right now and when you combine that with skillful coaching, the results are outstanding performances. They play with great enthusiasm. It’s a reflection of the way they’re coached.”
That’s why Friday’s trip to the Royal City to play a No. 1-ranked team will be a huge one for Notre Dame.
“Our Grade 11 class, although small in numbers, contains some very talented athletes,” continued Kelly. “They’re highly motivated and they are willing to work hard. Will Clarke has a lot of potential. He is a very talented athlete with high football and academic IQ. He is a work in progress at the quarterback position but he’s showing signs of moving into the elite high school level. As a defensive back, his anticipation and quickness to the ball are both at the superior level already.”
Mah, as well, had a strip and a pick-six last week in last week’s 48-0 win over Carson Graham, and Kelly loves his potential.
“He’s got great football savvy and he’s made some game-changing plays this year, and everyone on the team knows it,” said Kelly when asked of the underclassman. “He is very mature, and he was a unanimous pick as a team captain despite being a Grade 11. He’s the quiet leader that every great team needs.”
Speaking of great teams, the most accomplished in New Westminster Secondary history has been the 2009 edition.
Vivie Bojilov and Casey Chin established program standards in terms of productivity and heart on both sides of the ball that season and there was plenty of talent to surround them.
The 2017 team may just be at the midway point of its campaign, yet it would seem to be a deeper overall team.
“The ’09 group was a real high-talent group,” said Lalji. “(But) at most positions, this is the best group we’ve had. I think that’s fair.
“They are very enthusiastic and as a coaching staff, we have to both harness it, but not take away the character and DNA of who they are. It’s important to have fun, but we have to make sure that enthusiasm is directed the right way.”
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