VANCOUVER — When Varsity Letters sent out its preseason ballots to determine just who would be installed as the No. 1 team heading into the 2019 B.C. Triple A high school football season, the collective voice was loud and clear.
Fifteen head coaches took part in the poll, and more than half cast their No. 1 vote for a team which didn’t even make 2018’s preseason Big 5, but proceeded to go a perfect 8-0 in Western Conference play before losing on a walk-off field goal in the Subway Bowl semifinals to the eventual B.C. champion Mt. Douglas Rams of Victoria.
The Vancouver College Irish, heading into its 19th season under head coach Todd Bernett, received eight first-place votes, twice as many as the Rams who head into the season at No. 2.
Vancouver College’s 60 poll points were 20.5 points more than Mt. Douglas, making them the early choice to hoist all of the spoils on the final Saturday in November at B.C. Place Stadium. Coincidentally, the Irish and Rams meet to open the home conference portion of its 2019 seasons Sept. 28 at V.C.’s historic O’Hagan Field.
None of the coaches guiding the tier’s top-five ranked programs knew their preseason positions when interviewed by Varsity Letters, so when Bernett was asked what was key in that vital window of development as players transitioned from junior to senior varsity, his response was directed not at his team, but to the overall group of teams contending for the title at the province’s top tier.
“There’s always going to be the potential for a lot of teams to be better than they expect because sometimes, you can have a good group in Grade 8 or Grade 10 because you’ve got two or three really dynamic players and they can carry you further when you are younger,” began Bernett. “But once you get to varsity, you need a wider base of players who have good fundamentals, and if you do, the margins can get a lot closer.”
As we said, Bernett was not speaking about his own team, yet if you consider that Vancouver College loses seven starters on offence, and four more on defence, but remained the clear choice of rival coaches as the team to beat, those coaches perhaps see a large uptick in the skill development that V.C.’s rising class of seniors.
The Irish, like at least five of the other seven schools afforded either a preseason rank or honourable mention status, will enter 2019 with a new starting quarterback.
Eric Zychlinski, poised and efficient throughout his Irish career under centre, will be lost to graduation.
In his place? Rising Grade 11 Alex Nyvlt, who back in 2017 led the Irish to the B.C. Triple-A junior final where the College lost to Lord Tweedsmuir.
“He is still figuring things some things out, but the one thing that he which is a gift, is a strong arm to get the ball down the field,” begins Bernett. “We will try to make that a part of our system, to use the speed that we have to get down the field with an arm that is able to deliver it both deep and accurately.”
For that to happen, it will be vital for the Nyvlt to build cohesion and confidence with a group of receivers largely looking to make their first big mark in the senior varsity world.
Vancouver College graduates six of its seven top pass catchers from a season ago, but rising seniors like Gabe Botelho and multi-sport standout Jason Soriano have the kind of talent to mirror last season’s seniors, a sure-handed group led by graduating Owen Ker.
“That is the area, of all the position groups, that is going through the most change based on the seniors who are leaving and the younger guys who are looking to emerge,” said Bernett.”
It was hard to look at the entire three-season span of V.C. sports this season and not marvel at Soriano, a rock at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds.
Not only did he leave an impressive first-year mark in the defensive secondary over the fall, he was glue player as a guard on a very talented Irish basketball team, then proved himself to be one of the swiftest in the entire province by running 11.0 flat to take bronze in the 100m final last Saturday at the B.C. high school track and field championships.
“Jason will have his role, and Gabe is very much improved as a pass catcher,” continued Bernett of the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Botelho whose technical progression now has him putting a hand in the dirt as an in-line tight end. “Gabe is showing excellent leadership qualities and he can make a difference for us in winning and losing with the will that he plays with.”
Up front, the Irish lose four starters along the offensive line, yet the key pieces represented by Simon Smith and two-way man Ryan Hsiao will go a long ways towards galvanizing a positional group so dependent on chemistry.
Two-third of the team’s vaunted three-headed running back (Basil Schincariol, Aiden Perry) are leaving via graduation, and that elevates talented rising senior Daesaun Johnson to RB-1.
Listen to Bernett, however, and the prospects of keeping productivity high out of the offensive backfield remain high.
“Last year the three-headed attack was very effective and it worked until it didn’t,” said Bernett. “It was designed to keep us healthy until we had injuries. By our last playoff game, it got beat up.
“But Daesaun has had an excellent offseason,” adds Bernett. “He’s put on 15 pounds (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) and he’s been lifting well. Similar to what the guys on defence are doing, he’s teaching the young guys.”
And that running back group is a bunch brimming with energy.
John Calica, a rising senior who played a role just outside of the big trio last season, had moments in 2018 which should carry into 2019.
As well, Jayden Cheong and Rafael Schincariol rise from the JV, potentially turning the trio into a quartet.
Yet where the Irish look to be the most complete is on defence, where seven starters return and an eighth is among the most talented linemen the program has produced in recent memory.
Starting there, the 6-foot-1, 270 pound Aydan Tumeh was last season that rare Grade 10 JV player, elevated to the senior roster and inserted into the main rotation at defensive tackle. It was an early entrance a la Trey Henderson, the 2006 grad and USC Trojans’ recruit.
Tumeh, along with returning starter and rising senior defensive end Hsiao are looking like a pair to contend with.
“Aydan didn’t start last year, but he played a significant role,” begins Bernett. “We brought him to varsity because he helped complete the unit. Then to combine his larger role this seaosn with Hsiao, we have a special inside-outside combo.”
Smith is the other returning starter along the defensive line.
In the linebacking core, rising seniors Johnson and Colin Dolynski, return, the latter also a returning starter at fullback.
Keijaun Johnson and returning starter Soriano will lead a defensive secondary which might be the strongest part of the defence.
As well, Bernett is especially excited about the senior season linebacker Matt Hoag could well enjoy.
“He is big and strong, and he’s physical,” begins Bernett of Hoag, who has toned up from the 5-foot-11, 190-pounds he checked in at last season. “But he can also just flat-out run, and for his physical make-up, it’s pretty rare to have that kind of speed.”
The Irish will not face a U.S. team in the non-conference portion of its schedule, and that means three B.C. foes to begin the campaign before the No. 1 vs. No 2 clash Sept. 28 against Mt. Douglas at O’Hagan Field.
VANCOUVER COLLEGE FIGHTING IRISH
Sept. 6 vs. Kelowna
Sept. 13 at St. Thomas More
Sept. 21 at South Delta*
Sept. 28 vs. Mt. Douglas*
Oct. 4 at Belmont*
Oct. 11 at Carson Graham*
Oct. vs. New Westminster*
Oct. at Handsworth*
Nov. 1 vs. Notre Dame*
(*-indicates Western Conference league game)
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