VANCOUVER — Nov. 2. Mercer Stadium. One minute remaining in the fourth quarter. Gideone Kremler to Eddy Shala. Sixteen yards. Touchdown. Final score: Mt. Douglas 34 New Westminster 28.
If you are wondering what separates the two combatants in Saturday’s senior AAA Subway Bowl championship final (7 p.m., B.C. Place Stadium), that one snap by the visiting Rams, and its resulting TD against the host Hyacks on the final weekend of the regular season might well be it.
How else can you separate a pair of seasons whose positive and negative trajectories mirrored each other so closely, from their wire-to-wire positions within the provincial rankings, to the week-to-week health of their starting quarterbacks, to synchronous ways in which each lost to the very same foes, to their own core beliefs in why, despite a ton of adversity, each believed they could still play a football game in the month of December?
Every team, in every season, creates it own complex narrative, and when placed under the microscope, the DNA strands of the Hyacks and Rams are certainly not identical.
Yet the commonalities of trust and self-belief have wound up branding them football brothers from different mothers.
“For me, I got to see how a perfect week of practice, and a perfect dynamic between teammates turned into a perfectly well-played game,” New Westminster quarterback Kinsale Philip mused earlier this week about the steps the Hyacks took in beating No. 1-ranked Lord Tweedsmuir 34-16 in quarterfinals. “Then we did the same thing the next week (in a 33-0 semifinal win) over Terry Fox.”
Added Rams’ quarterback Gideone Kremler, whose team beat Vancouver College 31-28 in last week’s semifinal: “We didn’t have as much rest as (Vancouver College) and we weren’t as fresh, but for us, our resiliency, our heart and our determination were such big factors. When the guys dug deep in the New West game and won it with a minute left, it showed us how hard we had to push ourselves for the rest of the season. After that, we knew every game we played had to be played like that New Westminster game.”
Looking back in hindsight, it was a four-week stretch which all but told you that preseason No. 3 New Westminster and preseason No. 4 Mt. Douglas were Subway Bowl championship final long shots.
Sept. 21 Notre Dame 15 Mt. Douglas 12
Sept. 28 Vancouver College 55 Mt. Douglas 26
Oct. 6 Notre Dame 38 New Westminster 35
Oct, 12 Vancouver College 42 New Westminster 0
Yes, the losses to Notre Dame were extremely close, but at the time the narrative was rightly placed on how clutch and committed the Jugglers were.
And those losses to Vancouver College?
Yet in hindsight, the shared setbacks against common opponents also told you how similarly constructed the Rams and Hyacks really were.
THE PERFECT FOOTBALL STORM
The way Gideone Kremler was running the football in Mt. Douglas’ conference-closing win over New Westminster, and the way that continued the next week in an upset opening-round playoff win over St. Thomas More just seemed to confirm that he had benefited from the most healing bye week in the history of football.
That’s partly true, but the real answer to Kremler’s late-season renaissance, and by association, the rest of the team’s, is a little more complex.
“We got through the first few games of the season unscathed and we were feeling good,” Kremler said of wins over South Delta and Handsworth. “But Notre Dame and Vancouver College were clearly the two top teams in our league and when we lost to them, it was definitely a wake-up call. We just weren’t where we needed to be, so over the next few weeks of practice, the guys brought more passion and we really revved things up.”
From Oct. 13, the day after the Irish loss, to Nov. 1, the day before their New West win, the Rams played just twice in 20 days as they re-invented their psyche.
“A lot of the way we built ourselves back up over the back-end of the season was pretty much just based on selling out,” Kremler said of the entire team becoming as fully-invested in the process as possible.
“I didn’t have to do with me getting healthy, or our run game getting stronger,” he continued. “It was the mental idea that every moment on the field, you have to dominate, and if you don’t, you will be dominated.”
Yes, Kremler was getting healthier, but he was doing so just as the team’s identity had been blindsided by the Jugglers and Irish, and just as the Rams hits two bye weeks over a four week-span, one coming as a result of city rival Belmont shutting down its senior varsity program for the season.
It hindsight, happenstance created the perfect storm.
“Even in terms of my own progress, it’s not that running the ball wasn’t an option before,” added Kremler, whose signature on offence had always been his arm. “But we were trying to piece together what our team should look like. We could pass it more, but were starting to dominate by running it. So we stuck with one.”
The end result?
Because it would be foolhardy to ever sleep on the Rams’ aerial prowess, that run game was suddenly even more devastating, kind of like the synergy developing currently with the Seattle Seahawks’ run-first mentality. And by solidifying their identity, every facet of the team’s offence found a way to contribute, thus insuring full roster investment.
“I love nothing more than sharing the weight of responsibility and playmaking and how we are putting up points,” adds Kremler, who already sounds like a pro.
For him that has meant watching running back and brother Zairech Kremler finally get some long-deserved provincial recognition, along with teammate Sam Mosky, in one of the province’s best offensive backfields.
And of course, he was still getting the ball to a cadre of game-breaking receivers led by Sebastian Hansen and Dante Carbone, and including Zairech Kremler, Mosky and Joe Lucas.
“I do think that as our season progressed we were improving,” Rams’ head coach Mark Townsend said. “We had some losses but nothing changed us. The season is not won early. It’s won by getting better in every part of it.”
“…IT’S LIKE AN EXTRA SEASON OF EPIC GAMES”
The Rams have been living by that aforementioned mantra for so long, and none of that has escaped Hyacks head coach Farhan Lalji.
And as Lalji and his staff have worked tirelessly to introduce what the head coach feels are essential ingredients of a championship team environment, peaking when it matters most has been among the front-and-centre ingredients.
“I was envious of that for so long,” said Lalji of a Rams team, which after winning the B.C. Double A crown in 2009, appeared in five straight senior AAA finals from 2011-15, winning four of them, including three straight.
“They would go so deep into the playoffs at all levels, that if you added it up over a four-year period, it’s like an extra season, all of intense, epic, pressure-filled games. Now we’ve been able to do that by getting to four straight semifinals and they have all been big games.”
And just as Kremler has explained how a series of intersecting events helped the Rams discover their true identity, there has been a multi-layered plot line surround the Hyacks late-season turnaround as well.
Injuries struck quarterback Philip and dynamic speed-merchant running back Broxx Comia at around the same time, although when Philip was taken out of the equation, either in whole or in part, by a broken foot, his absence as both quarterback and linebacker forced enough of a shift in dominoes that the team’s overall edge was dulled.
“When Kinsale came back, it allowed us to put other players in spots where they would be more successful,” says Lalji. “It took us a while to figure out where everybody belonged.
“At the start of the year, we thought our defence was going to be unreal, and they were,” he continued. “But then we kind of lost our way when change happened. Now we’ve got guys in the right places and they’re just flying around. And our offence has just seen steady improvement.”
From the team that won last season’s Subway Bowl title, the Hyacks graduated 11 players, a pretty low number but one that included four or five very special talents.
Because of those blue-chip players, however, it was easy to overlook a class of 18 returnees and the transformation they would undergo en route to Saturday’s game.
“We’ve made it about process,” Lalji says. “We knew it wouldn’t be the same path as last year and we needed players to get better.”
Philip, Comia and Evan Nolli were among the core of standout who were more known quantities heading into 2018.
But it been seniors like Shay Rathjen, Matthew Lalim and Steven Sharma, and a Grade 10 like Vishaan Narayan who have stepped up and made themselves critical pieces of the team dynamic over the course of the campaign.
“And a guy like Greyson, not many thought he could be a dude,” adds Lalji of Grade 11running back Greyson Planinsic, who in the team’s loss to Notre Dame, a game in which Philip sat out, and Comia played on defence only, made his first senior varsity start and rushed 15 times for 194 yards, tying the school’s single-game record by carrying for five touchdowns.
RESPECT FOR THE RIVALRY
The dynastic Rams, B.C.’s trend-setting program and the game’s gold-standard provincially going on a decade.
The up-and-coming Hyacks, taking a step up into that select company over the past few seasons with consistent Final Four appearances and last season’s first-ever title.
In the lead-up to Subway Bowl’s AAA final, we’ve discovered just how similar these two well-tended programs have been over these last four seasons.
A pair of teams whose starting quarterbacks not only battled back from significant injury but are also good friends; a pair of teams whose conference finish was decided by their season-ending battle, and who over a one-month span lost to the exact same two teams, and in the same order; a pair of teams who had fallen out of the provincial rankings just in time to start an impressive string of playoff upsets, taking down the No. 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-ranked teams over a two-week span.
“I can remember to how it started in the regular season of our Grade 9 year,” Kremler volunteers, tracing the roots of this rivalry back to October of the long-ago 2015 JV season. “It was our first regular season game, at Mt. Douglas. New West won 47-46. And then we lost in the championship (JV) game that year, too.
“But ever since then, any time we have played New West, it’s been hard-nosed football. Guys are out there trying to lay the hardest hits and both teams, for the entire game, are trying to set the tone.
“It’s been a Clash of Titans every time.”
With that kind of build up, Saturday night can’t get here soon enough.
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