(We’re starting our countdown to the 2017 B.C. high school football season a little earlier than usual. Once a week, for the next five weeks, Varsity Letters will count down our Pre-Preseason Big 5 AAA teams. This week, we begin with No. 5, Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers)

SURREY — It was during season-ending player interviews when Kurt Thornton realized that the returning core of his Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers senior varsity football team were truly committed to big-picture team goals and a healthy run at a Subway Bowl senior AAA title..

“One of the questions we always ask is ‘What was your best memory of the season?’” said Thornton who remembers the response it got when posed to the team’s rising senior running back Derek Best, the same player who missed most of the second half of the season with a knee injury after rushing for 1,222 yards and 12 touchdowns on the campaign.

“He said it was our last regular-season game, a game he didn’t even play in,” said Thornton of a 24-21 OT win over Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat Hawks. “That was a game where we had seven starters out with injuries, equivalent to 12 starting positions with all the two-way guys we had.

“When you look at all the stuff (Best) did before he got hurt, all the yards he rushed for and all the touchdowns he scored, I thought that was a pretty amazing statement for a 16-year-old kid to make. It showed that he understands what the big picture is.”

A healthy Best who will also double at either safety or middle linebacker on defence; a stronger, faster and more experienced receiver/defensive back in Dawson Marchant, four of five returning starters along the offensive and defensive lines, and an incoming class which won the Subway Bowl AAA junior varsity title last season.

Add it all up and you get the team we’ve tabbed at No. 5 in the Varsity Letter’s pre-season Big 5 B.C Triple A high school football rankings.

“I think this is a good combination of players,” says Thornton, the team’s co-head coach along with defensive coordinator Lou Deslauriers. “I have doing this for quite a while and if you don’t have the guys up front, it doesn’t matter what else you have.

Last season, with a very young team, the Panthers gutted out their big win over Mouat to get to the playoffs, but lost in the opening round  of the postseason 41-19 at the hands of the Abbotsford Panthers.

“And the kids that are moving up (from JV) are going to be adding a lot of speed to the roster,” continued Thornton, who said that veteran coach Nick Kawaza would serve as the senior team’s offensive coordinator. “Our Achilles Heel was speed on the outside and I think they will help. I hope the younger guys all understand and appreciate that this could be their best chance (to win Subway Bowl).”

Veteran coach Nick Kawaza, last season with the LT juniors, moves into the offensive coordinator’s role with the senior varsity Panthers this upcoming season. (Howard Tsumura/Varsity Letters photo)

Starting up front on both lines, the Panthers are in the enviable position of bringing back a group of rising seniors and juniors who learned valuable lessons last season.

Cole Irwin, a provincial all-star at defensive tackle, as well as defensive end Griffin O’Connor, who had nine sacks last season, are both back, as are a pair of rising juniors in Addison Sadler and Noah Bedard.

Behind them, an interesting depth chart is taking shape at quarterback. Returning starter Walter Dingwall (800 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs) will be joined by two rising JV’s in Trey Jones and Kaiden Lilley.

Jones fired a pair of touchdown passes to receiver Jaden Simon as part of the Panthers’ 17-14 win over Victoria’s Mt. Douglas Rams in last December’s B.C. JV final.

Last season, eight of Marchant’s 22 receptions went for touchdowns, but he was really the only vertical threat on the club. Adding the likes of Simon, Kojo Odoom and Josef Drysdale from the 2016 JV roster should give the Panthers a new dimension on offence.

LT Panthers’ rising Grade 11 receiver Josef Drysdale has moves aplenty. (Varsity Letters/Howard Tsumura)

Best is a beast, and at 6-2, 215 pounds, Thornton feels he can make a strong push for provincial all-star status. Last season, despite his injury, he still showed enough to be picked BC high school football’s Grade 11 Player of the Year.

Talented Grade 11 Braeden Hutchinson will also be a part of the mix, and it will be interesting to see how someone of his skill is utilized in the backfield, perhaps potentially as a fly back.

The defensive line will lean on the same guys that make the offensive line work, with Marchant and Best two leading candidates to give the secondary and linebacking core its strength.

The Panthers will open the conference portion of its schedule on the road in Kelowna against the Mt. Boucherie Bears over the Sept. 23-24 weekend.

They finish off September the following weekend with their conference home opener against the W.J. Mouat Hawks.

If you’re reading this story or viewing these photographs on any other website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, they have been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at varsitylettersbc@gmail.com.

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