Welcome to an upcoming season in which they are overwhelming favourites, a season in which their ability to remain mentally grounded will be every bit as critical as their ability to unleash their unquestioned cache of physical skills on the football field.
There are No. 1 preseason teams, and then there are the Vernon Panthers, who in a Varsity Letters preseason poll of Double A coaches from around the province received every single first-place vote.
(Full Big 5 rankings below)
It was not a shock to anyone studying their recent history, their roster and the reasons they have to be a motivated group as spring camp prepares to give way to a summer of anticipation.
Yet even with the loftiest of projections heaped their way, it’s important to note that an Okanagan or so-called ‘up-country’ team has never won the Subway Bowl B.C. AA senior varsity title.
If they want to make history, they can do it in style because this December’s final at B.C.Place Stadium will mark the tier’s 30th anniversary.
“I have sensed the building and allowed the talk to happen,” admits head coach Sean Smith, who last season during the Subway Bowl B.C. championship playoffs led the senior varsity to the Subway Bowl Final Four, and the junior varsity to the school’s first-ever provincial title at any level. “But at the end of spring, we will have a sit down.”
Every so often, a powerhouse is arrives with the potential to sit a level better than the rest of the competition, and this season, Vernon looks like one of those teams.
Whether you are talking about development of senior quarterback Thomas Hyett, the toughness of diminutive rising Grade 11 receiver Caden Danbrook, or the do-it-all skill set of running back Charles Lemay, Vernon appears as complete as they come.
And that’s before we even mention the fact that four key starters along the offensive line — Jackson Thomas, Liam Alder, Nathan Vasconcelos and Mark Delasan — all return for their senior years.
There are so many other key returnees and along with a bushel of rising talent from the B.C. championship JV team, the crossroads of the two has created a potential pot of gold.
With all of that said, it’s again as much or more about mental approach this season.
So as spring camp began, coach Smith and his staff did their best to ensure they had an understanding with the players that nothing had yet been won.
MUTE REMINDERS OF THE TASK AT HAND
Earlier this year, several members of the junior varsity team sported their championship rings in the hallways of Vernon Secondary.
For those rising seniors, it was a sober reminder of just how much they want to finish their careers this coming fall with some Subway Bowl senior varsity championship rings of their own.
For Smith, that is a built-in motivation that the coaching staff can use.
So as they prepare the players for opening kick-off in about 12 week’s time, it’s easy to see how much thought they have put into reminding the roster just how dangerous it can be to hook one’s helmet and hopes to something as intangible and fragile as a preseason ranking.
“We were No. 1 twice before over the past few years and not able to finish,” reminds Smith. “It’s easy to be No. 1 on paper, but to finish that way is a tough thing to do. Unless you’re the one standing at the end, (the ranking) doesn’t matter.”
To that end, when players entered the team meeting room for the start of spring camp, a white board had clearly been marked with the digits ’22-8′.
What was it all about?
In 2016, the current seniors, in their final season of junior varsity, travelled to W.J. Mouat in Abbotsford for the provincial semifinals where they were routed 22-8 by Nanaimo’s John Barsby Bulldogs.
So the score, as Smith explained, was a mute reminder that every step of the process needed to be honoured with the same level of work ethic.
“It was there all through camp, and by the third day, the seniors started to get annoyed,” said Smith. “They were starting to grumble. So we had a meeting and I asked if anyone knew what it meant. Quite a few did, and they pointed it out to the others.”
THERE’S NO DOUBTING THOMAS
It’s a story that will be told on a larger scale throughout the coming season, but for now, just know that three seasons ago, the burgeoning Vernon Panthers program didn’t really have a quarterback to speak of.
In the growth of a football program, that’s like having everything but the leading man.
And thus the coaching staff set about creating one, and now, as he preps to enter his senior campaign, 6-foot-3, 195-pound Thomas Hyett is as good as they come.
“He’s done more than we could have expected from him,” said Smith of Hyett, who underwent the full grooming process in Grade 10. “It’s been really neat to see that development and now he looks the part of a big-time QB.”
Over the course of the 2017 regular season, Hyett boasted a 73 per cent completion percentage (73-of-100), while passing for 1,136 yards and 11 TDs against just three picks.
Joining Hyett is Smith’s son Zack, the JV championship game MVP at quarterback, who over his Grade 11 season will likely see enough snaps to stay fresh on the developmental ladder, while also seeing time as a receiver.
“The nice part is that they are really good friends and they respect each other,” says coach Smith. “They both understand that we will do what is best for the team and also keep in mind their development.”
From there, it’s the season which will tell the rest of the story.
Danbrook, Lemay, Matthew Reich, Kael Black, Drew Mackenzie.
They are just some of the names who will populate offensive skill positions while doubling up by bringing their most dynamic aspects to the defensive side of the ball as well.
Rival coaches clearly know their own title aspirations will likely have to go through Vernon.
And so as a school year ends and the countdown to the B.C. Double A season begins, the Panthers have their off-season marching orders: Take nothing for granted and stay hungry.
PRESEASON BIG RANKINGS
1 Vernon Panthers 45 (9)
2 John Barsby Bulldogs (Nanaimo) 26
3 Ballenas Whalers (Parksville) 22.5
4 G.W. Graham Grizzlies (Chilliwack) 11.5
5 Samuel Robertson Technical Titans (11)
Honourable mention — Windsor Dukes (North Vancouver) 7; Prince George Polars 6.5; Holy Cross Crusaders (Surrey) 6.5
Others receiving votes — Langley Saints 6, Argyle Pipers (North Vancouver) 2.5, Robert Bateman Timberwolves (Abbotsford) 1.5, Clarence Fulton Maroons (Vernon) 1.0; South Kamloops Titans 0.5
(Note — poll points listed with first-place votes in parenthesis. First place votes awarded 5 pts, second-place 4, third-pace 3, fourth place 2, fifth place 1, with honourable mention votes 0.5)
(COMING MONDAY: We start our countdown of Varsity Letters’ preseason Big 5 AAA rankings)
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