NEW WESTMINSTER — Ben McDonald. Daesaun Johnson. Broxx Comia. Kojo Odoom. Gideone Kremler. Dario Ciccone. Will Clarke. Jaden Severy.
That’s a pretty elite group of skill position players, and heading into this weekend’s Subway Bowl quarterfinals, it’s interesting to note that each plays for one of the surviving eight AAA teams.
Of course the galaxy of respective stars goes so much deeper for each team.
And all of that is in keeping with a theme of incredible parity this season, to the point where nailing the weekend quadfecta will be no easy task.
In fact if you look at the results involving the final eight team this season, the brain tells you that with few exceptions, it’s a pick ‘em world.
Eight of the 14 games involving some combination of the eight teams were decided by a touchdown or less, and of the more one-sided wins, only two (both by Vancouver College) came over the final month of the regular season: Lord Tweedsmuir 20 Terry Fox 14, Lord Tweedsmuir 27 St. Thomas More 21, St. Thomas More 35 Notre Dame 0, St. Thomas More 28 Terry Fox 21, Notre Dame 15 Mt. Douglas 12, Vancouver College 55 Mt. Douglas 26, Mt. Douglas 34 New Westminster 28, Mt. Douglas 40 South Delta 14, New Westminster 20 South Delta 6, Notre Dame 38 New Westminster 35, Vancouver College 42 New Westminster 0, South Delta 52 Notre Dame 50, Vancouver College 41 Notre Dame 14, Vancouver College 35 South Delta 34.
“In any of these four quarterfinals, no result would surprise me,” said New Westminster Hyacks head coach Farhan Lalji. “You can take a team like South Delta, they have played Vancouver College tougher than anyone, and it’s like that across the board. It’s as close as its ever been, so no, nothing would shock me.”
The defending Subway Bowl champion Hyacks, not unlike a lot of marquee teams around the province, were forced to deal with adversity, and New Westminster’s came in the form of a nagging foot injury to quarterback Kinsale Philip which had him either out of the lineup or at less than full effectiveness for a crucial period of about five weeks spanning the second-half of the regular season.
The St. Thomas More Knights are just now getting back a huge part of their defensive front in ace Sam Steele.
They lost RB-1 Braeden Hutchinson to a season-ending injury during the off-season.
And the Terry Fox Ravens lost their rising senior returning quarterback Jevaun Jacobsen to the prep school ranks over the offseason.
“Those things are just a part of football,” explained Lalji, whose team meets No. 1-ranked Lord Tweedsmuir on Saturday (5 p.m.) at B.C. Place Stadium in a match-up, which on the senior varsity level, has been dormant since 2012. “Have we dealt with it well? It’s just a part of what you have to go through. At the end of the day, we won games without Kinsale, and we lost one with him. I haven’t given much thought to the big-picture side of injuries, except that a year ago, when we had more depth to withstand injuries, we didn’t have any.”
From the Hyacks’ perspective, the key questions Saturday will centre around both their level of cohesion and their level of self-belief.
Losing three of their final four conference games (to quarterfinalists Vancouver College (42-0), Notre Dame (38-35) and Mt. Douglas (34-28) showed, to varying degrees, how close and how far they can be from beating anyone in the province.
In fact it took a touchdown on the final play of the game by Notre Dame to beat New Westminster in a game in which Philip did not play, and star running back Comia did not take an offensive snap, playing only on defence in the second half.
On Saturday, it goes without saying that any team wanting to beat Lord Tweedsmuir will have to bring their absolute ‘A’ game.
“They are the No. 1 team for a reason,” says Lalji. “No team has that amount of skill and balance. There are no weaknesses. But we’ve got some good skill kids, too and we like to believe that we can match and run with them.”
Comia, in fact, has had a dynamic senior season in terms of explosive plays.
Among AAA running backs with 50 or more carries, he is second only to Terry Fox’s Severy with an 11 yards-per-carry average.
Tweedsmuir has had similar success in both the pass and return games this season, especially with Kojo Odoom and Josef Drysdale.
Yet as consistently as both teams have won with explosive plays as part of their respective arsenals over the past two seasons, it’s dangerous to begin relying on them.
“It’s hard to be consistently explosive, and it’s more important to consistently move the ball,” Lalji says. “Then, when you have that explosive play, the impact is felt.
“For us, we need to move the ball, stay on schedule and not lean on explosive plays,” he continued. “Coaches will tell you that turnovers and penalties are not a recipe for success and we’re not built for second- and third-and-20.”
This past weekend’s playoff-opening 44-7 win over Abbotsford was, from their perspective, the first step back on the path to re-establishing their gridiron identity.
“Last week was as clean a game as we have played,” Lalji said. “We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, so hopefully that continues. Having been there before, and getting closer to full health, you hope that we can get back to that, and then have our guys comfortable in those moments making plays.”
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