NEW WESTMINSTER — It’s still too early to hang a specific identity on the 2019 New Westminster Hyacks football team.
Yet what’s most important in gauging the overall health of a program is both the ways in which its players continue to improve over the course of its delivery system, and the ways in which its team remains consistently relevant in the Subway Bowl title-contending conversation.
In that regard, over the past four seasons, the Hyacks have unfailingly checked all the boxes.
As New Westminster heads into the 2019 campaign, it does so sitting at No. 4 in the Varsity Letters’ preseason coaches poll.
And that number is significant because over the past four seasons, from 2015 forward, the Hyacks have appeared in four straight Final Four appearances — two championship game appearances (2017, ’18) and one title (’17) — making it the most productive phase in the re-born program’s 16-year history.
It’s a span of time in which time the Hyacks have shown the same ability to both prosper and re-trench among the province’s best at Mt. Douglas, Terry Fox and Vancouver College.
And when you hit a run defined by that level of high-end consistency, you can rest assured that the process itself takes care of your identity.
“I don’t think our character has been defined yet but we’ve had a good run of late,” begins head coach Farhan Lalji, who credits the dedicated coaches and players throughout the Hyacks’ program for creating an annual flow of talent from the JV to senior ranks, one which has allowed the Hyacks to avoid the dangers of feast-to-famine seasons.
“When we won title, everyone thought we were all seniors, but it was half-and-half, and it’s going to be the same thing again this season,” says Lalji, whose charges are coming off last December’s Subway Bowl title-game loss to Mt. Douglas. “The biggest difference is that (starting quarterback) Kinsale (Philip) is not there after three years as a starter.”
The prospect of installing a new starting quarterback is never a simple process, yet it’s a part of the game and something which will also be happening this coming seasons at a number of high-profile programs, including Vancouver College, Lord Tweedsmuir, Mt. Douglas, Notre Dame and St. Thomas More.
Yet while the Hyacks endured some team adversity in coping with Philip’s stints on the injured list, especially last season, the silver lining is the intel they gained on their future through the process.
Payton Myers, a rising senior, stepped in for an injured Philip in last season’s 38-35 loss to Notre Dame, and it was a debut which led to a total of three starts on the year.
Myers, along with Andros Dancey and Jordan Freeland, comprise the three-man battle at pivot
“Those three games helped him tremendously,” Lalji says of Myers.”He knows what it feels like (to start) and he won’t be rattled by the moment. Kinsale was a special athlete, and it was tough when he was hurt last year, but in some ways, it’s made it easier this season in that it’s not going to be a complete unknown.”
Greyson Planinsic wasn’t anything resembling an unknown last season, but like Myers filling in for Philip, the rising senior running back showed his RB-1 potential when he replaced an injured Broxx Comia in that same high-scoring loss to the Jugglers.
In his first-ever senior varsity start, all he did was carry 15 times for 194 yards and a school-record five touchdowns.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds to start last season, Planinsic doesn’t come across as imposing.
“His stature doesn’t stand out, but I love the kid,” says Lalji. “He has tremendous vision. He’s really athletic. And he gets the game so well. He has a real burst in the hole and he has the ability to lead-block as well. He’s ready to step in and carry the rushing load. It’s easier to be the relief pitcher than the starter, but he has the ability to last and carry the load.”
Michael Udoh, another rising senior running back, gives even more explosive punch to the offence. Udoh is hoping to avoid the injury tweaks of last season and take his game to another level. Rising Grade 11 Deakon Young is also on the scene.
Another rising senior ready to settle into a defined role on offence is Austin Galbraith, who was a contributor a season ago in all three phases and now looks ready to be a leader in the receiving core.
“He bounced around in spots on offence last year,” remembers Lalji of Galbraith who spent a good chunk at running back. “He should lock in at wide receiver this year. He is very good.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Hyacks boast standout cornerback Taran Birdi, who this past weekend shone in the CFC All-Canadian game.
Birdi will also bring his talents to the offensive side of the ball as a key receiver.
Both sides of the line will be led by rising senior Pavan Kainth and rising Grade 11 Vishaan Narayan, and Lalji likes how the pair have continued a recent tradition as two-way standouts up front, as well as the fact that a concerted effort has been made to consistently prepare the next group of Hyacks’ linemen.
“In this cycle, we have looked for one or two starters and more depth,” says Lalji. “We’ve made a big effort to always rotate three guys through two spots. That makes it easier the following year.
“Two years ago it was Yanni (Angelopoulos) and Isaiah (James), last year it was Evan (Nolli) and Daniel (Dordevic), and this year, it’s Pavan and Vishaan.”
And in keeping with the theme of playing in the moment but always keeping an eye on the future, the Hyacks are a case study in coaching up its players through the age-group ranks.
“I think one of our strengths has been our ability to track well,” Lalji adds. “Look at our teams and they tend to do better in varsity than they do in JV. The (senior) team that got to the final last season was a quarter-final team as juniors, and the JV team that won it in 2015 then won it all in 2017.”
Taken on the whole, those deep playoff runs equal extended periods of intense experience.
“It’s the thing I’ve envied most about Mt. Douglas,” Lalji concludes. “Every year they would go on long playoff runs and by the end of Grade 12, they’ve played another extra season of football. And we’re talking about an extra season of meaningful games. It’s important to note, and we want to be like that.”
NEW WESTMINSTER HYACKS
Sept. 6 vs. Lord Tweedsmuir
Sept. 13 vs. G.W. Graham
Sept. 20 at Mt. Douglas*
Sept. 27 vs. Notre Dame*
Oct. 4 at Carson Graham*
Oct. 11 vs. Handsworth*
Oct. 19 at Vancouver College*
Oct. 25 vs. Belmont*
Nov. 1 vs. South Delta*
(*-indicates Western Conference AAA league game)
(COMING WEDNESDAY — AAA No. 3)
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.