G.W. Graham head coach Luke Acheson (right), pictured with defensive coordinator Ian Parks (left), has seen first-hand how high school football has helped his players better deal with the real-life adversities brought on by extensive flooding in the eastern Fraser Valley. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Football

Open roads to B.C. Place await G.W. Graham! Grizzlies’ AAA maiden voyage has navigated toughest of roads en route to Championship Saturday!

CHILLIWACK — Figurative road blocks can be tough enough to overcome, but when you add in the real ones… the ones brought on by the mass flooding which has wreaked havoc in their eastern Fraser Valley community, Saturday’s journey to B.C. Place Stadium has been as daunting as they come for Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies.

Yet despite making the jump in tiers to AAA while coming off the pandemic-cancelled 2020 season, and soldiering on to the tune of a 12-1 record despite the rising tide of anxiety which has fallen in the form of atmospheric rivers, the Grizzlies have been buoyant in both spirit and belief.

And after answering his phone Friday morning, GWG head coach Luke Acheson was happy to finally give the answer he has wanted to utter all week.

“I think I have been asked that question over 100 times this week, and up until yesterday we were having to wait and see,” said Acheson, of the team’s ability to travel to the dome Saturday to face Port Coquitlam’s Terry Fox Ravens in the Subway Bowl B.C. AAA Coastal championship football finale.

“The highways opened up yesterday afternoon, and the road to B.C. Place looks like it’s going to be an hour-and-a-half,” continued Acheson. “So it looks normal. It looks like smooth sailing for us.”

Yet neither Acheson nor Ravens’ head coach Tom Kudaba needs to check the weather reports to know that when the clock strikes 7 p.m. Saturday night, that the conditions under the dome will be, in a football sense, choppy with a distinct chance of thunder and lightning.

Especially after the only blemish on 12-1 G.W. Graham’s record was a 34-0 loss to host Terry Fox back on Oct. 22 at Coquitlam’s Percy Perry Stadium. The Ravens have since gone on to post the province’s only unblemished record at 10-0.

“I think you can learn a lot from a loss,” said Acheson on Friday when asked to look back to where his team was just over six weeks ago. “We learned that night that there are a lot of great football teams out there, and that we have to rise to that level. It was a wake-up call for us, a measuring stick as our season progressed and just continued to get more and more physical each week.”

That is, of course, another way of describing the path to the post-season.

Centennial’s Markus Rafnson (right) is met by the defensive presence of G.W. Graham’s Logan Tocher (left) and Christian Beck during last Saturday’s Subway Bowl AAA Coastal semifinals at B.C. Place. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)

And when you have a running back, in this case Fox’s electric senior Gavin Whittingham, inflict the kind of damage he did (298 yards rushing, four touchdowns), your chin straps are sure to be secured just a little tighter than usual.

“The way it unfolded, they saw something in their run game and against our defence in that game and they stuck with it,” added Acheson. “They gave Gavin 30 carries for close to 300 yards. It was something remarkable. They tend to lean on that running game when they can. I think it’s their fingerprint. But they have the capability to be so balanced if they want to because (Owen) Sieben is a great quarterback and they can really pass the ball.”

Interestingly enough, Acheson points out just how focussed Terry Fox has been in their run-up to the biggest games of its season.

The Ravens had their Oct. 15 game against Abbotsford awarded as a forfeit win, and thus hadn’t played in two weeks when they beat G.W. Graham.

And of course last Saturday, Terry Fox had not played in three weeks due to byes and re-scheduling, but still beat Notre Dame 27-12 in the Coastal semifinal round.

It’s the surest sign out there just how prepared the Grizzlies’ foe will be Saturday.

Yet G.W. Graham’s players have been remarkable in their own right, and as Acheson has watched them come together despite their adversities rising with each passing month, he can’t deny how the lessons the game has taught them, has steeled them for what awaits Saturday and beyond.

“I think as a former football player and as a football person, that football is a major escape from whatever is going on in life,” Acheson says.

“I know growing up, that whatever was going on in life, that I had those two-to-three hours of football where I was able to really dial into something else, and dial out of whatever life circumstances I was dealing with at the time… and I know it’s the same for these kids.”

Acheson says the respite it provides it palpable.

“After practice you can see some of that life stuff come back… you see them wearing it,” he observes. “And that is why everyone needs football. Everyone needs football. And when these guys miss it, they are missing their major way of dealing with life stuff. They all need football to have that escape once in a while.”

For the Grizzlies, it’s been a shelter from their storm.

And come Saturday, on the final day of the season, it’s fitting that through their shared perseverance, they’ll be able to revel in some smooth sailing on their way to the biggest game of their lives.

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