ABBOTSFORD — Maybe the greatest thing to behold in the recent resurgence of the Abbotsford Panthers football program isn’t the fact that they’ve produced two of the century’s most dynamic B.C. high school football talents.
That, of course, is saying a lot when you’re speaking of Chase Claypool, set for his breakout sophomore season this fall as a receiver with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and of course, rising senior running back Samwel Uko, a player for whom no provincial rushing record is ever quite safe.
Two transcendent talents whose grad years are just two seasons apart, each with the kind of jaw-dropping talent substantial enough to draw media scrutiny away from every other member of his team.
Yet through it all, a Panthers’ program which opens the season at No. 1 atop the Varsity Letters’ Big 5 B.C. Double A rankings, has managed to bolster its team chemistry by creating an environment in which the likes of Claypool and now Uko celebrate their status as good teammates first, and superstar athletes second. (Full rankings click here)
It’s a dynamic slice of buy-in that raises the level of everyone’s game.
“Even when Chase was here, we were always a team first,” Abbotsford head coach Jay Fujimura said earlier this week. “Yeah, we went to him a lot, but it was because he was always open. We have always said that one guy can never be more valuable than another.
“We play a team game, and Samwel understands that,” Fujimura continued. “Everything he does, he relies on everyone else on the field. I like to think we’re pretty balanced that way.”
Was it a sign then, that when your faithful reporter attended an Abby practice this past Wednesday, that Uko just happened to be one of a small handful of Panthers not on hand that day?
If anything, it reinforced the team’s theme.
That is to say, the Abbotsford Panthers may have been blessed with the talent-of-a-lifetime in Claypool, then spent literally no time waiting for their next top star with the emergence of Uko, who led all of B.C. senior varsity football in rushing with 1,725 yards and 20 TDs.
Yet in no way has the star system become too big to cloud the picture of their greater goal: Winning the 2017 Subway Bowl B.C. AA title this coming December at B.C. Place Stadium.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
At one end of the Abbotsford Secondary School turf, assistant Robert Browning is coaching up the line.
At the other, Fujimura is paying specific attention to the first-string offence.
And as the Panthers prep for their season opener one week from today (Sept. 8) at home to the defending Triple A finalist Notre Dame Jugglers, both groups feature both veteran-laden leaders and exciting new talents who have made their way up from the ranks of the junior varsity.
Some of that youth?
Abbotsford’s DNA is distinctly that of a run-first team, but the kid taking the snaps and giving his receivers a workout under the watchful eye of Fujimura is a Grade 10 who, believe it or not, proved his mettle just fine with the big boys in 2016.
Last season, when injury knocked senior pivot John Madigan out of the lineup for a few weeks, it was Grade 9 Ethan Anderson who stepped in and kept the Abbotsford train rolling.
The same kid who led the Mission Niners community team and the Abby Middle JV team to provincial titles in his eighth grade year, directed the Panthers to a 55-0 win over visiting West Vancouver in a game in which he threw three touchdown passes, all 35-plus yards, and had no interceptions.
“Ethan has worked hard in the off-season and although he is still very young he is progressing at a pretty fast rate,” Fujimura said. “He has some things to work on but I am happy because I think he is going to be able to lead this team.”
Abby took a huge hit in its receiving core with the graduation of both Tanner Marquardt and Reese Morrison. Seniors Jacob Macri, Jordan Townrow and Owen Parker along with Grade 10 Karl von Einsiedel should be Anderson’s main targets this season.
Yet Uko, despite his absence from practice Wednesday, remains omnipresent in the Abbotsford blueprint.
Hey, just ask the young pivot Anderson, who delivers this dead-pan dandy: “I am not a running backs coach, but from what I see, Samwel knows what he’s doing.”
The Panthers also boast running back Luke Smzutko, who last season led the JV team in rushing.
And that veteran experience?
Take a look down at the other end of the field, and there is little question that two-way senior lineman Sahil Sahota is one of the program’s glue guys.
“I feel like we are like a contending Triple A team,” says the 5-foot-10, 270-pound guard/defensive end, whose Panthers have moved back to Double A this season due to overall school population numbers after making a one-season climb to Triple A in 2016. “And I feel like I have to be a role model for our younger players.”
So what’s the key to helping spring Uko for a big run? Just how technical a task is it?
“I say ‘Just block everybody’ because Samwel is so unpredicatable,” laughs Sahota. “He’s also fun to watch, the way he will juke one guy, then cross-step another.”
Fujimura, of course, can’t say enough about the ownership Sahota has brought to the team.
“Sahil is a leader, the veteran who does everything that you ask,” said Fujimura. “He is one of the better linemen I’ve ever had here.”
And along with Sahota there is massive JV graduate Jeff VanderWerff, an offensive tackle/nose tackle, who measures out at 6-foot-8 and 340 pounds.
Not a bad way for Uko to find some space to operate, although if you’ve seen him play, you know he has a unique habit of making others miss and creating his own space.
“He has always been quick and elusive,” said Fujimura of Uko, who as a neophyte community league youth player once rushed for over 700 yards in one game. “Now you see that he has worked on hitting the hole harder, brining more power and strength to his game.
“I think people noticed last year that he didn’t just try to run away from people, that he wasn’t afraid to take contact. I am hoping he comes in this year even more dynamic, and you’re going to see us using him in a lot more positions (rover/corner/special teams).”
RED AND BLACK FOREVER
So that’s the Abbotsford way and its practice is prudent.
Try as you might, you may never ever see players as talented as Claypool and Uko follow each other within a high school program.
“I am very excited to be a part of this,” says Anderson. “I can’t wait for us to get started.”
Of course it’s never about just one player.
And in the case of Sahota, the feeling he holds for winning a Subway Bowl title seems larger than life.
“It’s a dream,” he says, likely unaware that the Panthers’ last provincial crown came back in 1984. “Everybody wants to win a B.C. title. I’ve never won one. So to do it in Grade 12, our last year of high school, would be so great.”
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