SURREY — Over a span of the past 10 years, think of names like Michael Messenger, Jamel Lyles, Caleb Abraham, and of course Derek Best.
It’s hard to think of many other programs at the top end of the B.C. high school football world who have collected a more blurred total of rushing yards and touchdowns than the aforementioned quartet who did all of their damage while donning the green of Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers.
It’s rightfully a point of pride for the Cloverdale crew, yet if you ask senior varsity head coach Kurt Thornton what could help take for the program over the top at the AAA level, in much the way its Grade 8 and junior varsity programs have done over that same span of time, one word comes to mind.
“Balance,” begins Thornton. “We’ve always been a strong running team, we’ve had good offensive linemen and a very good defence. But it’s broken down for us, either at the quarterfinals or semifinals the past few years. So we’ve recognized that we have to be a threat at all parts of the field.”
With two straight seasons of help from its highly-decorated junior varsity program, every Grade 11 and 12 member of the rising 2018 senior varsity group has won a Subway Bowl title.
And while the signature program, on the whole, has never won the big prize of a Subway Bowl senior varsity championship, the majority of rival coaches from around B.C.’s top tier seem convinced enough that the Panthers’ time is now.
In as tight a vote as we’ve seen, Lord Tweedsmuir edged the two-time AAA finalist Terry Fox Ravens of Port Coquitlam by a single point to become Varsity Letters’ preseason No. 1-ranked team.
Yet to lend focus to the theme of parity which has dominated talk throughout the week, each of the top five teams received at least one first-place vote.
And the top two honourable mention teams — Notre Dame and St. Thomas More — were each within one vote (of varying degrees) of potentially finding their way into the rankings.
1 Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers (Surrey) 58 (4)
2 Terry Fox Ravens (Port Coquitlam) 57 (7)
3 New Westminster Hyacks 43.5 (3)
4 Mt. Douglas Rams (Victoria) 39.5 (1)
5 South Delta Sun Devils 18.5 (1)
Honourable mention — Notre Dame Jugglers (Vancouver) 18, St. Thomas More Knights 15.5, Vancouver College Fighting Irish 9.
Others receiving votes — Seaquam Seahawks (North Delta), Mission Roadrunners, Carson Graham Eagles (North Vancouver), Kelowna Owls, Handsworth Royals (North Vancouver)
(Note — first-place votes in parenthesis. Teams received 5 points for first place, 4 points for second place, three points for third place, two points for fourth place and one point for fifth place, with half-points issued for honourable mention votes)
A DEACDE OF BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
The 2018 season marks the 10-year anniversary of Lord Tweedsmuir’s ascent to AAA.
From Shane Ram back in that first 2009 campaign, to the power and elusiveness of running QB Messenger (2010-11) to Connor McKay (2012-13) to Christian MacMillan (2014) to Jonathan Chwaklinski (2015) to Walter Dingwall, who started the majority of the past two campaigns, the Tweedsmuir offence has never led through the air.
Yet when you’ve won the past two B.C. JV titles and those teams have delivered a cadre of rising senior receivers (Yosef Drysdale, Jaden Simon and Kojo Odoom), all you need is the right quarterback to get the party started.
After leading the Panthers to the 2016 JV AAA title, rising senior quarterback Trey Jones finds himself, under the tutelage of veteran offensive coordinator Nick Kawaza, as the pivot with the chance to finally bring balance to the Panthers’ attack.
“It was a competitive situation last year at quarterback and we were solid in that position,” says Thornton of then-senior Dingwall and then-Grade 11 Jones. “Week in and week out, Trey got some experience in games and he really wanted to play more.”
It’s a small sample size to be sure, yet a 63 per cent completion rate (20-of-32) for 361 yards and three scores against no picks isn’t the worst place to start.
“Trey has a very quick release and he picks things up very quickly,” continues Thornton. “Coach Kawaza talks about how decision-making is what he brings.”
Interestingly enough, if Jones gets a push this season, it’s going to come from his little brother.
Terrell Jones, who led the JV’s to a repeat Subway Bowl title, is a rising Grade 11 with a resume that rivals that of his brother.
“If things continue this year, Trey should play more,” adds Thornton, “but we want his younger brother to push him for his own sake.”
Of course, all the talk of an increased reliance on the passing game makes Tweedsmuir especially dangerous, considering how they will be able to populate their offensive backfield.
Braeden Hutchinson was more than just an understudy last season, which is saying a lot when you toil in the shadows of a player as dynamic as Best.
While only taking 29 carries over nine games, Hutchinson still rushed for 464 yards and nine touchdowns, his freakish 16 yards-per-carry average tops in AAA for any player with more than double-digit carries.
Among the many other candidates to vie for time at running back is rising Grade 11 Colton Cameron, a multi-sport standout whose two rushing majors helped carry the Panthers past Vancouver College in the 2017 JV final.
All of that said, Thornton was encouraged by the offensive line’s play over the spring.
“It was better than anticipated, the head coach said of a group that returns three starters, all rising seniors, in Noah Bedard, Addison Sadler and Ryan Rapske.
As well, Austin Benoit, has returned after a season away and has re-discovered his chemistry with the group.
As is the case with the rest of the province’s top offensive units, so many of its stars will lead a double life as key players on defence.
Odoom is ready to elevate his game to that of the very top cornerbacks in the province, while teammate Michael Bachouch should star alongside him in the secondary at strong safety.
Sadler will be a huge part of the defensive line, while the linebacking core, not yet fully set, gets at least one top returning starter back in Hutchinson.
All will settle in under new defensive coordinator Bob Swing as veteran Lou Deslauriers, the former UBC head coach, has elected to step back for the time being.
TUCK IT BUT DON’T FORGET TO CHUCK IT
Study the history of Lord Tweedsmuir football at all of its levels and you discover two peak periods within the teams that feed the senior varsity.
The Panthers’ Grade 8 program won three straight Subway Bowl titles from 2009-11, with the last two coming under the Tier 1 designation.
Then, in both 2016 and ’17, it’s JV team won B.C. titles at the Tier 1 level.
You can easily see how the scope of the program has grown since the Panthers lost 33-8 to the Windsor Dukes in the 2005 Subway Bowl AA final, thus far its only senior varsity B.C. title game appearance.
Thornton admits the temptation will be there this season to run, run, run the ball.
Yet going with the pass, in balance, will be the key.
“In trying to focus more on quarterback development than in years past, the goal is to bring more balance to the offence,” he reiterates.
“At the end of the day, you want to stick with what is working for you, and what you need to do to win,” Thornton adds. “But we recognize that at times over the last couple of years, we have been the victims of our own success in the running game.
“You keep getting four-to-five yards (per snap) and it’s easy to stick with it, but at the same time it can be hard to drive the length of the field, and then if there is a turnover or something happens to a kill a drive, you need to have more balance.”
Just what might it all add up to?
“In terms of measuring it, I hate to put a number on it,” says Thornton. “We had games were we would score 50 points and not have much in the way of yards because the defence gave us short fields, or we were strong in the return game. But what I would like to see is maybe the number of touchdowns we score (run vs. pass) be close to 50-50 or maybe 60-40.”
For those who have watched the maturation of this program over the last decade-plus, they have seen it grow first from its Grade 8 success, through to its current junior varsity domination.
Yet it’s certainly not like the senior varsity team was an afterthought throughout that phase. Far from it.
There have been, however, enough heartbreaking finishes that a new line of thinking has come to pass.
And yes, the pun is intended.
(We hope you’ve enjoyed two straight weeks of B.C. high school football countdowns. We’ll be back later in the summer to pick up the countdown to kick-off and the glorious march to Subway Bowl 2018!)
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