NEW WESTMINTSER — Their running styles are a study in contrasts, and the length and the breadth of their respective resumes couldn’t be any more different.
Yet the bottom line in the New Westminster locker room following every Hyacks football game this season is the single-mindedness which drives every post-game gab-fest between running backs Greyson Planinsic and Michael Udoh.
“We don’t ever talk about what we do individually,” says Planinsic, of he and fellow senior Udoh, whose vast and varied skill sets have put the oomph into No. 3-ranked New West’s vaunted wing-t offence.
“We always talk about how much we’ve combined to do,” continues Planinsic. “How many yards did we gain and how many touchdowns did we combine to score? Nothing is individual. Our thing is, we look at ourselves as the best running back duo in the province.”
As the Hyacks (5-1) prepare to play host to the No. 1-ranked South Delta Sun Devils (6-0) in a Western Conference regular-season finale Friday (7:30 p.m., Mercer Stadium) which could well determine its regular-season champion, it’s pretty hard not to find any fault with the Planinsic platform.
The Hyacks are the only team in the B.C. Triple A ranks with two rushers in the top eight.
Together, the Royal City’s dynamic Grade 12 duo has combined to carry 173 times for 1,568 yards(9.06 yards-er-carry) and 18 touchdowns over the first eight games of its season.
The Hyacks’ association with the wing-t and its many root variants is now old enough to encircle its own football trunk 13 times, and over the passing of those years, it has seemed to celebrate loudest when it has welcomed a committee of running backs whose varied styles meld in the most complimentary of ways.
“For sure we want to be able to take advantage of different skill sets,” says Hyacks head coach Farhan Lalji, who introduced the wing-t throughout the entire New Westminster program in time for the 2007 season, four seasons after its initial resurrection. “We do different things within our run game and when teams overload on one thing, we take advantage of another.”
WHY GREY DAYS ARE GREAT DAYS
The Hyacks will honour their 17 Grade 12s as part of a pre-game Seniors Night celebration prior to Friday’s Kushnir Boot game at Mercer Stadium.
And when Greyson Planinsic hears his name called, it will be as the longest tenured current player in the Royal City/New Westminster system.
The 5-foot-11, 160 pound Planinsic started his career with the Royal City atom program at the age of 8, and although he took one season off from the game early in his career, the 2019 campaign is his ninth in total.
Combine that longevity with the fact that he is a true student of the game, and its no surprise that he is a guy ready to perform at a myriad of positions at the drop of a helmet.
“Greyson has exceptional vision and a real good ability to both set up his blocks and to read them as well,” says Lalji. “But the real beauty with Greyson is that he is plug-and-play. He’s had so many reps that he can line up anywhere, and do it with a complete understanding of the offence, and what the position requires. He has such an intrinsic knowledge of the game and that is awesome for us, as coaches.”
Last season, when an injury knocked senior Broxx Comia out of commission on the offensive side of the ball, Planinsic made the most of his first real feature opportunity in the backfield on Oct. 5 of 2018, rushing 15 times for 194 yards and five touchdowns in an eventual 38-35 loss to the Notre Dame Jugglers.
“We lost and that bummed me out, but it felt amazing from the standpoint that going into the game, I knew that I had to have a big game for us to have a chance to win,” said Planinsic. “I don’t think that the coaches really knew that I could do that, and it felt great to be recognized as a good running back on this team.”
Yet just as Planinsic stressed that his post-game dialogue with Udoh has always centred around how their combined efforts can help the team, he has also embraced the program’s rich history and his place within it.
“Playing on this team, it means so much to me,” begins Planinsic who got a chance to join the senior roster in its run-up to the Subway Bowl 2017 championship. “That was the first year I switched to running back and I got a chance to watch (former Hyacks star RB) Sammy (Sidhu). The way he played inspired me. It was his physicality, his mindset going into every game that if he had to, he was going run you over.”
And then, when it’s pointed out to Planinsic that back in that first year of the Wing-T in 2007, the Hyacks actually had three 1,000-yard rushers in John Drury (1,116), Blain Cawkell (1,210) and interestingly enough, longtime and current Hyacks’ running backs coach Darnell Sikorski (1,380), he can’t hide his appreciation.
“He averaged over 11 yards-per-carry that season,” offers Planinsic of Sikorski’s 11.3 ypc, tops among all AAA backs with at least 100 carries. “I am so grateful to have had him as a coach. He’s had the same experience (as a player), and he is a humble guy, so down to earth, a guy who just wants us to keep getting better. He has pushed me to become the running back I am today.”
STILL FAST, BUT NOW UP TO SPEED
Perhaps the greatest contrast between Greyson Planinsic and Michael Udoh is the difference in the sheer amount of snaps each has had.
Planinsic has played for basically the last decade.
When Udoh came to New Westminster last season as a Grade 11 after growing up in Richmond, where he had attended non-football R.A. McMath Secondary, he hadn’t set foot on the gridiron for three straight seasons.
In fact Udoh stopped playing football for three years beginning in eighth grade.
“I had played atom and pee wee football (in Richmond), but my dad didn’t want me playing football when I got to Grade 8, mostly because I wasn’t doing well in school,” remembers the 5-foot-9, 166-pound Udoh, who instead turned his attention to the track, especially the sprints like 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay.
Dusting off the cobwebs was no simple task.
Udoh’s athleticism very quickly flashed, yet after stepping away from the game for three years, he struggled both trying to avoid the injuries which seemed to greet him at every turn, and to digest the complexities of the Hyacks’ offence.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” admits Udoh. “I didn’t know the phrases, but those reps kept building and now this year, I know the playbook and I am in a way better position. I have learned that it’s not all about your speed.”
It is, however, his best weapon if deployed in the proper context.
“Michael is a very explosive player and he’s at his best going downhill quickly,” says Lalji. “So we try to use him that way. But he is also very effective as a receiver out of the backfield. His explosiveness is his biggest asset.”
And although they never talk about themselves as individuals, it is worth noting each players individual stat lines heading into the Friday’s Kushinir Boot clash.
In seven games, Udoh has carried 78 times for 797 yards and 10 touchdowns, with averages of 113.9 yards per game, and 10.2 yards-per-carry.
In eight games, Planinsic has carried 95 times for 771 yards and eight touchdowns, with averages of 96.4 yards-per-game and 8.1 yards-per-carry.
“Other teams have to worry about both of us,” says Planinsic. “We compliment each other’s skill sets. Michael is fast, and we want to get him into the open field. I can cut well, and when they put me on the sweep, I can get yardage. If you shut one of us down, then the other one is still coming.”
Adds Udoh: “I think it’s really important that the other team doesn’t know what’s coming. When we split carries, it’s not just one of us getting pounded, and it just makes us so much more.”
On their own, Greyson Planinsic and Michael Udoh are both special players, but over the course of their senior seasons, they have come to define how the whole will always be greater than the sum of its parts.
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