A bigger, strong, faster Liam Reid (52) is one reason the defending champion Vernon Panthers top the Varsity letters' B.C. Double A preseason football coaches poll. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Football

On the prowl again, defending champion Vernon Panthers hold AA No. 1 ranking as they take on tough encore assignment

Welcome to the fifth instalment of our five-team countdown to No. 1!

Today, Varsity Letters presents our look at the No. 1 team in the preseason B.C. Double A coaches poll.

Beginning Monday, we will start the countdown of the Top 5 Triple A football teams.

VERNON — The 2018-19 B.C. high school sports season isn’t even 100 per cent over yet, but it’s safe to say there was no more dominant senior varsity team across all sports than the Vernon Panthers football team which won the Subway Bowl AA title back on Dec.1 at B.C. Place Stadium.

A three-game post-season run which netted an incredible plus-117 point differential was comprised of a 51-14 quarterfinal win over Ballenas, a 44-0 semifinal win over John Barsby and finally, a 48-12 championship win over Robert Bateman.

As you’ve followed Varsity Letters’ preseason Big 5 rankings countdown here over the past few days, you will note that all three of Vernon’s post-season victims are once again projected as Top 5-ranked programs themselves this coming season.

And all that does is reinforce the notion that the 2018 Panthers, 10-1 on the campaign with a lone loss coming at Triple-A Terry Fox, were one of the most dominant Double-A teams in recent provincial history.

Today, as we cap off our B.C. Double-A countdown, the team you may have expected to be sitting at No. 1 is indeed atop the heap.

Of the 10 AA head coaches taking part in our annual preseason coaches poll, seven cast their first-place votes for Vernon, while two voted for John Barsby and one for G.W. Graham.

Are these Panthers as clear a No. 1 as the voting would suggest?

And are they as clear a No. 1 as their incredible finish to the 2018 campaign would indicate?

“My perspective is that it will be real competitive,” Vernon head coach Sean Smith says. “I think every year is a new animal. Last year, at this time, if you had said we would have won the way we did in the playoffs, I wouldn’t have believed you.

“But you never know how good your team is going to be,” continued Smith, “and how much all of the other teams, like G.W. Graham who just had a great junior season (in 2018), are going to be”

These Panthers are sans graduating seniors like quarterback Thomas Hyett and running back Charles Lemay, as well as a host of talented two-way linemen.

Smith makes no bones of the fact that there are question marks to be answered and depth issues to be addressed.

Yet the basic palette of a return champion seems to be in place when you consider both the fact that the rising senior class has won consecutive JV (2017) and then senior varsity (2018) B.C. titles; and that there is an in-grained toughness and belief in this group which even extended onto the basketball court where Vernon lost in the B.C. Triple A senior boys basketball title game in March, falling just shy of an incredibly rare double.

Zack Smith quarterbacked Vernon to the 2017 B.C. Double A JV title. Now, one season after moving into a full-time role on offences a slotback, he’s back at quarterback for B.C.’s defending senior varsity AA champs. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)

“This group in particular is very mentally tough and very competitive,” begins Smith of a team which will be quarterbacked by his son Zack Smith, the B.C. JV-winning pivot back in ’17.

“Sometimes they are not the biggest or the most talented, but they always bring it no matter what,” continued Smith of a group which will also include the dynamic and versatile runner/catcher Caden Danbrook, running back Matthew Reich, receiver Trent Charlton and linemen Brady Szeman and Liam Reid.

“I was really impressed in the playoffs, how as a group, we were able to execute at such a high level and for us, that is an advantage we have going in. But we will have to rely on our mental toughness to overcome any dips we might have.”

The biggest obvious change comes at quarterback.

It’s been Zack Smith’s primary position, and his transition back to the pivot after a one-season absence has been, by all reports, very smooth throughout the spring.

In fact after moving to a receiver spot last season, he returns as even more intuitive team leader.

“What he gained most last year is knowing what it takes to be a great teammate and what to do to win,” Sean Smith says of his son, also the point guard on the Vernon basketball team. “You  have to make sacrifices. He could have started (at quarterback) on another team, but he knew it was Tommy’s year. The best part was that they are good friends and so he really pushed for Tommy to do well.”

Hyett, of course, quite famously teammed with Smith, Charlton and Reid as part of a Panthers’ basketball squad which lost to North Delta 46-44 in the B.C. Triple A final.

“This group of (seniors) has won a lot, but losing in basketball has not only motivated them in basketball (where they will open the 2019-20 season with the No. 1 ranking) but also in football,” says coach Smith. “You can see how hungry these kids are.”

Reid, the son of head basketball coach Malcolm Reid, has according to Smith, put in the kind of daily, consistent training that will enable him to be an every-snap factor this season, especially lining up at defensive end.

“He’s put on size and strength and he has made a huge jump in his play,” says Smith.

Charlton, a defensive back/receiver type, is the kind of player Smith calls “the perfect teammate.”

“He is not a guy who chases glory, but a guy who is the glue just like in he is basketball,” Smith relates. “He is a high-end talent who doesn’t get a lot of recognition but might be a star on other teams.”

Danbrook is the player who might most closely resemble running back Lemay from the 2018 team in terms of the overall offensive impact quotient.

He won’t do it the same way, but Smith likens him to a B.C. high school version of Julian Edelman, a piece he can line up in the slot or in the backfield, and who can run the jet sweep. He’ll also bring impact at one of the safety spots on defence.

Reich is in many ways similar. He will be the team’s primary tailback, but he can catch it as well. And while Smith says Danbrook plays “30 pounds heavier than he is,” he ups the number to 40 pounds for Reich, another guy who will excel as a safety on defence.

Brady Szeman is a rising talent in the middle, a centre-type on offence who will finally get a full-time role on defence, either at tackle or as a middle linebacker-type.

Come rain or come shine, Vernon head coach Sean Smith likes the toughness of his 2019 Panthers. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca 2019. All Rights Reserved)

The identity of the defence overall?

“Small but tough,” says Smith. “They’re going to be tough. We’re not very big but we will play much bigger than our actual stature and never back down. Matthew Reich is a prime example of what we hope our defence will be. He’s 5-8 and he doesn’t weigh much, but in the final last year, he was our best defensive player. He flies around, makes big hits and he has speed and tenacity. That is what our defence has to be.”

Of course the anticipation of big clashes to come in the fall has already begun in Vernon.

The Panthers, in fact, have already scheduled preseason No. 2 G.W. Graham twice.

Vernon will host the Grizzlies in a non-conference game Sept. 6. Yet before that one even takes place, the two will meet in a controlled scrimmage in June in Chilliwack.



SEPT. 6 vs. G.W. Graham

SEPT. 13 vs. Holy Cross

SEPT. 21 at Cochrane (Alta.)

SEPT. 27 vs. Clarence Fulton

OCT. 4 vs. Salmon Arm

OCT. 11 bye

OCT. 18 vs. South Kamloops

OCT. 25 at Okanagan Mission

NOV. 1 at Clarence Fulton

(COMING MONDAY: We count down B.C. Triple A’s top five teams)

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