In their glory, Abbotsford Panthers ' team captains (left to right) Ken McIntee, Paul Gill, Lance McDonald and Lance Iten hoist the spoils of victory on a chilly night at old Empire Stadium back in 1984. (Photo provided through the permission of Paul Gill)
Feature High School Football

Abby’s original football heroes: Some 35 years later, Panthers celebrate their biggest victory with a B.C. title rematch against Notre Dame

ABBOTSFORD — Paul Gill has never forgotten the feeling he got from winning his final high school football game.

Now, 35 years later, the Abbotsford Panthers’ 14-4 victory over the Notre Dame Jugglers in the 1984 B.C. championship game is being recognized for the pioneering bar it set in the city you might just call the hotbed of B.C.’s high school football.

On Saturday (1:30 p.m.), the Panthers (1-0) will pay homage to their old-time heroes, then take to the turf at Abby Senior to face Notre Dame (1-0) in a re-match of that 1984 clash.

(For an even deeper dive into the story, check out this Week’s Varsity Letters’ podcast where we interview Paul Gill, Denis Kelly and Jalem Catlin in advance of Saturday’s gme. You can hear it all by clicking here).

Truly, it’s a tribute to simpler times.

The game was final title clash played at the old Empire Stadium site, it came at the tail-end of the single-tier classification era, and also well before Subway came aboard as the event’s longtime title sponsor.

But most of all, it happened long enough ago that all of its players are now in their early 50s.

“Winning that title is a bond we will always have no matter how much time passes,” says Gill, now 53, but back in 1984 an Abby team captain and the Panthers’ starting middle linebacker.

“It’s a family thing,” continues Gill, a career teacher and football coach in the school district in which he grew up in and later helped lead the city’s Rick Hansen Hurricanes to the 2004 AAA title. “To this day, we can all reflect back to the common goals we set, and the work we all did. It didn’t matter which guy you were on that team, you had a special role.”

While Abby quarterback Lance McDonald (right, 10) looks downfield to pass in a 1984 game against California’s Marin Catholic, fullback Paul Gill (44) and offensive lineman Lance Iten (60) provide pass protection. (Photo provided through the permission of Paul Gill)

The journey of that Panthers’ team, coached by Bill MacGregor, whom Gill calls “the grandfather of high school football in Abbotsford” happened just four seasons into the program’s launch.

“To this day he still has a positive impact when we reflect on all of the things he taught us,” Gill says of the man who not only started football at Abby Senior, but later at Rick Hansen where as principal, he watched head coach Gill and offensive coordinator Lance McDonald (Abby Senior’s 1984 quarterback) lead the Hurricanes to the top of the heap.

MacGregor took the nucleus of a team he brought together as ninth graders, and very quickly brought them up to speed to compete against the province’s traditional powerhouses, led of course, by Notre Dame, which heading into the 1984 season, had already won 10 of its current 13 B.C senior varsity crowns.

Abby had advanced to the provincial semifinals in both 1982 and 1983, and then peaked to make a dramatic post-season run in 1984 with a group that included quarterback McDonald, running back Ken McIntee, OL/linebacker Lance Iten and Gill.

Abby beat the Richmond Colts  14-12 in the quarterfinals, then got the winning field goal in overtime from McIntee to beat the Kamloops Red Devils 9-6 in the semifinals.

In the title game, McIntee rushed for a pair of touchdowns, including one from 40 yards. The Panthers defence, meanwhile, held the vaunted Notre Dame offence out of the end zone, with all four Jugglers points coming off a pair of safeties.

The 1984 B.C. champion Abbotsford Panthers football team. (Photo provided through the permission of Paul Gill)

The ties to that game, over a generation later, between the two teams playing Saturday is fittingly strong.

Notre Dame head coach Denis Kelly, back in 1984, was the Jugglers’ quarterback coach, part of a staff led by B.C.’s winningest-ever coach, George Oswald, who these days plays a vital role on the Notre Dame staff as an assistant coach.

“We had a very good team but we ran up against an Abby team that was at its peak in 1984,” remember Kelly, whose ties to football in the Abbotsford school district are his tightest anywhere, having spent a generation plus building the W.J. Mouat Hawks into a provincial powerhouse.

As well, Notre Dame’s starting tailback that season was Elmore Abraham, who 35 years later is a top assistant coach and running backs coach at Abby Senior.

And that is a perfect segue back to the present day Panthers.

Like so many programs, Abbotsford Secondary football peaked and later hit hard times.

The program, in fact, folded for a number of years before it was brought back in 2008 as a Tier 2 developmental program.

Gradually, the program found its feet under current head coach Jay Fujimura, reaching the 2015 Subway Bowl AA title game.

That season, led by current Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool, the Panthers dropped a 53-24 decision to North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles.

Abbotsford also reached the 2017 Subway Bowl AA final as well, losing 44-29 to North Vancouver’s Windsor Dukes.

Over the years, they have yo-yo’d between AA and AAA, but Fujimura says returning fulltime to AAA in the Eastern Conference is something that just feels right for the future of Panthers football.

“It’s more of the path and the place we want to get to, and with such tradition in our past, we are trying our best to get back to (how we played) 35 years ago.”

Aptly captioned, a moment captured in time ahead of Saturday’s 35th anniversary reunion. (Photo provided through the permission of Paul Gill)

Of course Claypool’s future path to the NFL and the current success being enjoyed by running back Jalem Catlin, who last week rushed for 235 yards and five touchdowns in a 34-14 win over Mouat, have kept the program moving forward.

“He works really hard and continues to watch film and get better,” Fujimura said of Catlin, who last season led the B.C. Triple A ranks in rushing. “We talked after the Mouat game and he knows there is still a lot to improve on. It’s why he has become so successful.”

Unwittingly, that mantra applies perfectly to their predecessors: The 1984 Panthers.

Gill remembers his old team being, at one stage of the season, ranked “about No. 7 or No. 8.”

These days, as an honourable mention team in an era where the weekly rankings offer a top-five look at the provincial AAA scene, that’s pretty similar.

So, too, is the fact that the 2019 Panthers are a senior-laden group, having graduated just three starters from last season.

“I remember when we were in Grade 9 (Notre Dame) beat us 36-0 in a junior varsity game,” remembers Gill, going back to the 1981 campaign. “So (in 1984) we were definitely the underdogs.”

You don’t have to wonder too hard, then, just whom the 2019 Abbotsford Panthers will be drawing their pre-game inspiration from as a special game-day Saturday dawns in the eastern part of Fraser Valley.

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