NANAIMO — When last we left the current decade’s most dominant B.C.-based AA senior varsity football program, at its home away from home, aka B.C. Place Stadium, its weather-worn but wise head coach was floating in his favourite place.
“It feels like heaven, and it’s as sweet as anything there ever was,” Rob Stevenson said that day back in December of 2014, just seconds after his John Barsby Bulldogs not only repeated as Subway Bowl provincial champs, but captured their third title in five years.
As Stevenson has always said, given the amount of sweat, toil and luck it takes just to get to a Subway Bowl championship final, you never take such moments for granted.
Now, as spring camp reveals another collection of blue-chip talent being assembled within the Bulldogs’ Nanaimo compound, it bears mentioning that John Barsby’s senior varsity has not played a game at B.C. Place Stadium since the aforementioned day in 2014 when they beat the Mission Roadrunners 36-20 for all the spoils.
Think about that for a second.
In the five seasons from 2010 through 2014, the Bulldogs played in the B.C. senior AA final four times, wining three titles.
*In 2015 they were ambushed at their own Merle Logan Field 50-36 in the quarterfinals by the Abbotsford Panthers.
*In 2016, they missed the post-season altogether.
*Last season, despite playing perhaps their best game of the season coming off a tricky eastward traverse of the province from Vancouver Island to the Okanagan, they were quarterfinal victims once again, this time losing 20-6 at Vernon to the eventual semifinalist Panthers.
All of that feeds into the spirit the Bulldogs have carried into spring camp this season, and it’s a huge part of the reason, as Varsity Letters’ No. 2-ranked preseason team, that they’ve got their best chance yet of returning to B.C. Place Stadium to play the biggest games of their season.
MORE THAN ANYTHING, THEY’RE HUNGRY
On one dimension, that of the senior varsity variety, B.C. Place’s hallowed turf has proved elusive for the Bulldogs.
Yet the memory of coming out of the tunnel and onto the field at B.C. Place Stadium is still pretty fresh for many of team’s rising Grade 11 and 12 players.
That’s because John Barsby played in the 2016 B.C. Double A Junior Varsity final, a crosstown derby game in which they were trounced 26-0 by the Nanaimo District Islanders.
Ask Stevenson about the core of his 2018 team, and from rising senior quarterback Cameron Wright, last season’s Grade 11 Western Conference MVP, to all-provincial team cornerback Steen Rasmussen, there is a bevy of returning experience.
You can start with talent, to be sure. Yet the biggest component is its hunger.
“Our motto is ‘Get Better’ and we’ve banged on that for the last three years,” says Stevenson of the simple saying which has spanned their entire Subway Bowl title drought. “You’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours, just like in the martial arts. Our guys don’t always look like the prototypes in Grade 10, but by the time they’re in Grade 12, they’re balling out. It’s a process.”
The most tangible sign that Barsby’s wave of maturing talent still sits on the younger side of the fence as they move forward into the fall?
At the team’s award’s banquet last season, when it came time to handing out the MVP award, which encompasses both the JV and senior varsity programs, the top prize was shared by a pair of Grade 10s who split time between both teams.
Two-way linemen Josh Wakely and Kaden Brown, now rising Grade 11s, will play huge roles in helping the program re-establish its dominance at the first point of contact. Add the presence of rising senior Tyson Chalmers within that group and there is a lot to work with.
And all of that is huge in light of the graduation of all-provincial two-way lineman Jaydon Boese.
“Offensively, we’ve built our system to the athletes we have, but we still have a lot of the double-wing DNA in there,” says Stevenson of the team’s traditional offence, based on power running and deception.
“This year, we’ve really decided to use our imagination,” he continues of the playbook being handed Wright, fellow rising senior Zach Taylor and rising Grade 11 pivot Tyson Vollens. “So there’s going to be some spread stuff with double-wing blocking inside, plus we’ve added an option component. I think we can score in bushels.”
Rising seniors Rasmussen and Mason Scott, the latter a threat out of the slot, appear to be two of the primary aerial targets.
Stevenson doesn’t hesitate to call it the strength of the team.
Start at its heart, at middle linebacker, with defensive captain Jacub Gillman, also set to start at running back on offence.
Gillman is leaner than a season ago when he took offensive reps at fullback, and Stevenson sees a player ready to take command as a senior.
There are, however, defensive stalwarts returning at all points throughout the 11.
Taylor was all-conference a season ago at linebacker.
And in the secondary, while provincial all-star Scott is its most decorated member, rising senior receiver Kole Postema, and rising 11s Vollans, Daniel Barker and Ricardo Zavala-Torres are ready to assume more critical roles.
COMING BACK STRONG
Since 2010, the John Barsby program has had more title-game appearances (4) and titles won (3) than any other senior varsity program at AA.
As well, its junior varsity program has one title and three championship appearances over that same span.
Stevenson doesn’t acknowledge the last few seasons as being anything more than a normal part of every team’s cycle.
Outsiders may see it as a dip in the program’s fortunes, but it’s weathered-and-wise skipper just keeps on plugging.
“The measure of success in our program is how many come back to play the following year,” begins Stevenson.
“You are going to win and lose by that,” he continues. “So are you selling the game and are the kids finding value in it? This year, we got all but one back.”
(Friday, June 15: Who is AA’s No. 1 team? Beginning Monday, June 18: We count down Triple A’s Big 5 preseason teams)
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