Vernon head coach Sean Smith has his AA team ranked No. 1 in Varsity Letters' Big 5 preseason coaches poll. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2021. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Football

Our countdown to kick-off begins! Varsity Letter’s Big 5 B.C. High School Football preseason AA rankings have arrived!

In anticipation of a return to play on the high school football fields this fall, we’ve returned with the first of Varsity’s Letter’s own back-to-back preseason B.C. Big 5 rankings.

Today, we will start with the AA ranks, with the AAA to follow in the coming days.

Three games are scheduled in the Week 0 window Sept. 3-4, with the first full slate in two years scheduled to kick off Sept. 10-11.

To start us off, here are the first set of AA rankings, compiled through a vote of head coaches at that tier. For the rest of the season, Varsity Letters will provide its official set of rankings based on weekly results.



1 Vernon Panthers (34 points), (4 first-place votes)

2 tie Windsor Dukes (23 points) (North Vancouver) (3)

3 tie Ballenas Whalers (23 points) (Parksville)

4 Carson Graham Eagles (14 points) (North Vancouver) (1)

5 John Barsby Bulldogs (9.5 points) (Nanaimo)

Others receiving votes — Robert Bateman Timberwolves (Abbotsford) (9), Argyle Pipers (North Vancouver) (2), Langley Thunderbirds (1.5), Holy Cross Crusaders (Surrey) (1), South Kamloops Titans (1).

(Note — five points awarded for a first-place vote, down to one point for a fifth-place vote. John Barsby and Langley split one fifth-place vote)

LANGLEY — Can the Vernon Panthers become a true AA high school football dynasty?

“Time will tell what effect the pandemic will have on our program, but I know that the bonds formed between the guys that have been grinding it out without any games are very strong,” Panthers’ head coach Sean Smith told Varsity Letters as his team enters the new season with a decisive No. 1 ranking, including four of the available eight first-place votes.

“The 2021 version of the Panthers might distinguish themselves by having a lot of players that are very similar, and not only in size but in playing ability,” added Smith, whose program is looking for a Subway Bowl three-peat this coming December.

“But more than the previous two teams, they will rely less on superstars and more on a large number of players, each finding a way to contribute to be successful,” continued Smith of a group that includes three key seniors in receiver/defensive back threats Roan Reid and Kolby Thorpe, and offensive tackle/rush end Grayson Statham.

Grade 11s of note include tailback/linebacker Scotty Hoffman, and quarterback/corner Braden Khunkhun.

Vernon will scrimmage the Mt. Boucherie Bears on Sept. 5, followed by a trip to the Apple Bowl to face the Rutland VooDoos in its opener Sept. 10 (6:30 p.m.).

Windsor receiver Adam Murray (right) clashed with Parksville’s Ballenas Whalers in the 2019 B.C. JV AA championship final at BC Place. Two years later, the two teams check in at Nos. 2-3 respectively in Varsity Letters’ first AA preseason coaches poll since 2019.  (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2021. All Rights Reserved)

Think way back to 2019, and you might remember that North Vancouver’s Windsor Dukes topped Parksville’s Ballenas Whalers in the Subway Bowl B.C. AA junior varsity final.

Fast-forward past the lost COVID campaign of 2020 and we arrive with the two schools seemingly locked at the hip in terms of their excellence and their growth.

The Whalers and Dukes tied at 23 polling points apiece, yet arrived at their ranking altitude in vastly different ways.

Windsor did not receive a vote on two of the eight ballots cast, yet also registered three No. 1 votes, as well as a second, third and fifth.

Ballenas, on the other hand, didn’t get a first-place vote yet showed up on seven of eight ballots, with three No. 2s and three No. 3s in addition a No. 4.

For Windsor head coach Ian Sinclair, there is comfort in the fact that a core senior leadership group of four former Grade 10 senior varsity captains from its 2019 JV titlists have stuck together and form a good portion of the Dukes’ 2021 gridiron bedrock.

Running back/corner Jacob Groves, receiver/corner Adam Murray, two-way tackle Hunter Brown and tackle/middle linebacker Thomas Sinclair all return, looking to maintain a remarkable program streak of biennial success.

Windsor won the 2015 B.C. AA junior varsity title, the 2017 B.C. senior AA title, and of course the 2019 B.C. junior AA crown.

“It’s a fantastic group, they are all staying together,” said Sinclair, “and it really reminds me of our 2017 (senior AA) team. That team didn’t win it (in 2016 as Grade 11s) but came back the next year to do it. Like that team, they’re all buddies, all overachievers who are super-coachable.”

Windsor’s 2017 group sets a high benchmark, its perfect 10-0 record the first point of reference, with the second being such gamebreaking talents as Ryan Baker, the touchdown maker, at quarterback, and scoring machine Julien Perri.

Ballenas will continue to refine its offensive attack, this time with new offensive coordinator Mark McDonald joining the fold, and bringing with him his no-huddle spread scheme via the South Delta Sun Devils.

He joins a staff led by head coach Dan Smith, and longtime assistant Jeremy Conn, who this season will call the defence.

Among the senior core are 6-foot-2, 185-pound quarterback/free safety Ryker Pearson, 2019 junior team MVP Ayden Chambers, a running back and linebacker, and 255-pound two-way lineman Jonah Anderson.

Among the Grade 11s are a pair of players checking in at 6-foot-6 in Brayden Jupe (QB/WR/DB), and Enzo Agostini (OL/DL). Fellow Class of ’23 standout Will Dubesky (6-3, 265) adds more size and push along both lines.

“The pandemic has been very tough on everyone and not being able to play games really sucked,” admitted Conn, “however, we are really proud of our kids. They came to our workouts and practices, when we were allowed and their commitment never waned.”

Ballenas is scheduled to open the season Sept. 10 in Victoria against Belmont, while Windsor kicks things off Sept. 18 in Abbotsford against Robert Bateman.

Carson Graham head coach Brian Brady will coach his Eagles at the Double AA tier this season. (Photo by Blair Shier property of

North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles have transitioned to AA after a number of seasons at AAA, yet their schedule begins about as tough as it can when the AA No. 4 plays at the defending AAA champion Vancouver College Fighting Irish on Sept. 2.

“Our team identity will be to ‘play with speed’ and play selfless, team football,” said Carson Graham head coach Brian Brady, who welcomes back just one senior starter in outside linebacker Ashton Fink. “Together we are stronger, divided we will fall apart.”

Carson will implement its traditional Air Raid attack with a largely unproven group of players and a quarterback battle. Senior offensive linemen Aleks Wallace and Kallum Hansen, the latter checking in at 6-8, 240, will work the trenches for running back Fink, set to move into a feature role out of the offensive backfield. Grade 11 Griffin Withers and senior Aidan Nemeth lead a receiver room deep in talent.

On defence, the linebacking trio of Fink, Logan Mellish and Vytor Oliveira are notable in the middle of the defence, supported in the secondary by corners Daniel Tshisbang and Malek Gul. Up front, leaders include Aleks Wallace and Kyle Carter.

Nanaimo’s John Barsby Bulldogs will be going back to the basics when the 2021 season begins against crosstown rival Nanaimo District. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

The Big 5 will be rounded out by the longtime Nanaimo power John Barsby Bulldogs.

Head coach Rob Stevenson likens the return of football to the school’s Hub City campus to a re-start for the entire program after so many days of inactivity.

“Our basic identity on offence and defence is going to be simple and physical,” Stevenson explained. “You will see us working to achieve a solid run-pass balance on offence and getting a lot of bodies to the football on defence.  Special teams will be an equal part of the trifecta and we aim to elevate the word “Special”  to a whole other level of meaning by our actions.”

While Stevenson is re-familiarizing himself with the roster of players he will have this season in preparation for its opener Sept. 10 against crosstown rival Nanaimo District, the offensive and defensive lines are the logical first place to consider.

That’s where two-way seniors Marek Smith (6-5, 285) and Walker Addison (6-3, 270) will help the Bulldogs begin to draw a line in the sand.

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