NEW WESTMINSTER — Think back to last December and the dramatic way in which the New Westminster Hyacks closed out the 2017 B.C. high school football season.
Consider as well everything in the weeks which preceded their breath-taking, last-second comeback title-clinching 15-14 win over the Terry Fox Ravens for the school’s first-ever Subway Bowl B.C. Triple A senior varsity championship.
“We were uncanny in our ability to make the big play in the big moment,” said head coach Farhan Lalji in retrospect. “Whether we were falling behind against Vancouver College, in the fourth quarter against Seaquam, or coming back in our semifinal (against South Delta) and then in the final, we needed to make big plays at big moments in all of them, and we were equipped to do that.”
And that’s not even including the 19-14 nail-biter over Mt. Douglas in the opening round of the playoffs.
It was the kind of journey best mapped out by a series of figurative electrocardiogram spikes, which when taken on the whole represented one heart-stopping moment after another.
Of course, it’s not the kind of schematic you would ever hold up in front of the team tasked with providing an encore.
Instead, you thank the football gods for some good fortune, knowing full well that any chance of replicating such elusive end results won’t come without first putting in the work to have as many players as possible ready to perform at their best.
New Westminster prescribed to that theory throughout the 15 seasons which included last year’s championship campaign, a climb from a Double A start-up program in 2003 to that of perennial Triple A title contenders.
And now, even if its overall depth seems just a notch more shallow than 2017, the team ranked No. 3 by a preseason vote of coaches from the province’s top tier, is simply going about its business the way it always has.
“We want to build depth,” says Lalji of the team’s primary focus as spring camp now gives way to a summer of anticipation for a team which still returns a solid number of key players from last season’s Subway Bowl winners.
“I would say that our depth is not what it was a year ago,” he continues. “Last year, we could withstand injury and still get through the grind of a Triple A season. Yet we had so few injuries. We were really healthy, but we could have handled it. So it will be important to build depth and to stay healthy.”
AMIDST BIG LOSSES, KEY RISING TALENT
Think of what Yanni Angelopoulos and Isaiah James brought up front as linemen, and what Sammy Sidhu, Sebastien Reid, Lucas Sabau and Finn Stark represented as dynamic playmakers on either side of the ball.
Further consider that all six are next-level bound, set to join university programs from Burnaby to Halifax this fall.
As far as blue-chip losses go, that is more than a swift kick to the solar-plexus.
Yet here the Hyacks are, taking their rightful place in any pre-season talk of titles.
New Westminster had 11 players graduate from their 2017 roster, four of whom were two-way starters, four of whom started one way, and three of whom manned back-up spots.
Nonetheless, they represented 12 of the team’s 22 total combined starting positions on offence and defence.
“We still return a healthy amount,” says Lalji. “Championship teams are typically all seniors. But we’ve got some guys coming back.”
And when one of those players is your starting quarterback, everyone on the offensive depth chart seemingly gains an extra step or two on the collective process.
Kinsale Philip (6-foot, 190 pounds) is big, tough and rocket-armed, and to those physical qualities you can add the fact that he is not only already a B.C. Subway Bowl JV winner, but he engineered the 80-yard drive the Hyacks used to beat Terry Fox in last season’s senior varsity finale.
“He has always had a feel for the game physically and now he’s catching up with his maturity and we saw signs this spring that he’s found it,” says Lalji of Philip’s new level of in-game composure. “I am looking forward to seeing what he can do when all of those personal traits line up.”
Last season, after quickly developing chemistry with the game-breaking Reid, Philip may have been too quick to abandon the necessary read-progressions that not only keep the rest of his teammates more involved but help him gain a better understanding of his environment.
Yet from a physical standpoint, he has the kinds of gifts so many other do not.
“In terms of arm talent, he has a high-level collegiate arm,” adds Lalji. “But it has to be accurate and consistent. We’ve talked about five per cent less velocity for 25 per cent more accuracy. But the ball just explodes off his arm. He can put the ball anywhere on the field but it’s a question of ‘Can you do it consistently?’”
In the Hyacks’ traditional Wing-T offence, the run is still huge and Philip can execute that part of the game with power.
Through the air, however, his chief targets will likely be rising seniors Zachery Northgraves and A.J. Chol.
The latter made his return to the game last season as a back-up after a few seasons spent living abroad with his family.
“He’s a 6-2 kid with very good hands and good downfield speed,” says Lalji, “and Zach, who was primarily our kicker last year, has a bigger role this year and we’re excited.”
Sidhu and Sabau were a huge one-two punch along the ground last season. Sidhu will man a linebacker spot with the Calgary Dinos while Sabau heads to Simon Fraser as a running back.
In their stead are two rising seniors who have already done everything at the senior varsity level except own feature roles.
Broxx Comia will move into Sidhu’s feature running back role, while Michael Kingsley does likewise by taking over as the starter at Sabau’s fullback spot.
Along the offensive line, Vishaan Narayan, a rising Grade 10, will, despite his youth, be an anchor at the one of the guard spots.
While other guard spot is still up in the air, there is talent returning all around it via a trio of rising seniors. Evan Nolli and Pavan Kainth are a pair of talented tackles while Daniel Dodevic, skilled but caught in a numbers game last season, moves into the starter’s spot at centre.
The Hyacks’ defensive line should feature the likes of Nolli, Narayan. Dordevic and Kainth in some manner with the likes of rising seniors Dario Cade and Steven Sharma, among others, also figuring prominently in the mix.
The linebacking core will include Philip, rising senior Shaye Rathjen, and Titgol Jock, a newcomer to the sport who had come from a basketball background.
In the secondary, look for the likes of Comia, Chol, Arjun Bal and rising Grade 11 Grayson Planinsic to populate some of the spots.
TOUGH ALL OVER
As we’ve unveiled the first two of our 2018 preseason Big 5 AAA teams here over the past three days, a theme of parity has clearly developed.
South Delta’s Ray Moon and Mark Townsend of Mt. Douglas both spoke to the glut of blue-chip teams currently populating the upper reaches of the province’s largest tier.
And Lalji takes it a step further by addressing the tight and uncertain nature which exists in the tier’s Western Conference, of which his team is a member.
“I am sure there is a target on our back and I am sure teams will be extra hungry when they play us,” begins Lalji. “But honestly, the conference is so tough as it is. When I look at Mt. Douglas, Notre Dame, Vancouver College, South Delta, all of those teams, you hold your breath a little. A lot of stuff went right for us last year.”
(TOMORROW — June 21: Who is No. 2 in Varsity Letter’s preseason Big 5 AAA football rankings?)
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