NANAIMO — Rob Stevenson has a huge place in his heart for the rising seniors which will populate the roster of this coming season’s John Barsby Bulldogs senior varsity football team.
Veteran head coach Stevenson, in fact, might not be able to find too many classes over his first 23 seasons at the helm of the Nanaimo-based program who have improved as much as his soon-to-be Grade 12s, and all of that is a huge part of the reason the ‘Dawgs come into the 2019 season with a No. 3 ranking in the Varsity Letters’ B.C. preseason Double A coaches poll.
“You go back two years to their (Grade 10) junior varsity season, and they were a winless team until the final two games of the season,” begins Stevenson. “This group has just continued to improve and develop, and that is the great thing about high school football.”
That 2017 JV season was indeed a season of hard knocks for the Bulldogs.
The current rising seniors started that campaign 0-6, including losses by 18 points to Earl Marriott and 19 points to Holy Cross.
And the one that really stung? How about a 47-0 loss in the Border Battle series to Parksville’s Ballenas Whalers?
Last season, however, as Grade 11s, they supported a gritty senior class which made it all the way to the Subway Bowl semifinals before losing 44-0 at B.C. Place to soon-to-be-champion Vernon.
As well, the 2018 John Barsby JV team also made it to last season’s provincial semifinals before falling 38-0 to soon-to-be-champion G.W. Graham.
With all of that in mind, Stevenson has hammered home the importance of a true team mentality this season, and nothing stokes the fires of true team play than dominant play in the trenches.
“What I am most excited about is the interior of our line on offence and defence,” says Stevenson. “It might be the most depth we’ve had since 2015.”
Two-way linemen Kaden Browne (6-2, 250) and Josh Wakely (6-2, 225) will anchor both the push and plug.
“Kaden and Josh have pretty much been two-way starters since Grade 10 and they’ve both had the ‘man-child’ nicknames forever. They have made a huge difference since 2017.”
Complimenting both lines will be rising Grade 11s Walker Addison and Marek Smith, the latter coming in at 6-4 and 270 pounds.
Of course, the big question is going to be how well the Bulldogs will be able to collectively replace so many of the skill position standouts from a dynamic offence which was led by pivot Cam Wright and running back Zach Taylor.
“Out entire starting backfield has graduated,” begins the coach. “There was a group of six guys there who were outstanding and now they are gone. But I like the work ethic and the leadership I am seeing emerge. It’s not going to be a year for us where two or three guys are above and beyond in terms of athleticism. It’s going to be a real group effort.
That means consistency from the returning receiver group of Tyson Vollans, William Coopsie and Ricardo Zavala Torres.
It also means some big shoes to fill for whomever wins the starting quarterback job. Included in that battle will be last season’s JV starter, the 6-2, 165-pound Isiah Calliou.
Zavala-Torres will be a key figure in the secondary, while Landon Wilson is expected to be a playmaker from his outside linebacking spot.
Stevenson’s one regret from last season?
Despite all the adversity the Bulldogs faced in its semifinal game against Vernon, that they weren’t able to give the Panthers a better fight.
“Vernon was the class of Double A by far and they were a wire-to-wire No 1 for a reason,” Stevenson said. “They had fabulous coaching, fabulous players, they were super-physical. They had it all.
“But we were still pretty disappointed with the semifinal,” he continued of the 44-0 blowout loss. “We had a pretty limited roster in terms of depth. We were pretty chewed up. Like a dog with a broken leg. No excuses. Even at 100 per cent it would have been tough. We fought valiantly, but it was just the lopsided nature of the game.”
And so this season, even with a true Brand X-type team, Stevenson and his staff just want their team to make a good account of itself week in and week out.
They are sure that if that happens, the results will follow.
“We have reason to be encouraged,” he said. “The roster has an upside in terms of room for improvement. The ability to become a real team in the true sense of the word will determine if the playoffs and a potential run are in the cards for this group.”
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