VANCOUVER — This one is rare.
You’re almost never going to see the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams meeting, both carrying overall undefeated 8-0 records into a game which is not for the Subway Bowl provincial championship title.
Yet that is the early treat football fans will get Saturday (12 p.m.) in the senior varsity Double-A semifinals at B.C. Place Stadium.
It’s the top-ranked, defending champion Vernon Panthers against the No. 2-ranked Ballenas Whalers of Parksville, as the current group of seniors on both teams share a post-season dance card for the third straight season.
And while Vernon, a wire-to-wire No. 1 for two straight seasons, enters the game as the favourite, Panthers’ head coach Sean Smith knows that as gridiron chess reaches the level it will be at Saturday, anything is possible when foes know each other as well as these two teams do.
“I told my players in film study last night that Ballenas has two strengths,” Smith said earlier this week. “The first is that they run their systems very well on O, D and special teams. This is the sign of a well-coached team. It will make it very hard to break big plays on them when we are on offence because they are so sound in their gaps and are sure tacklers. They rarely getting caught out of assignment on the back end. And then offensively, they are so fine-tuned in their run game and those play action boots and rolls, that it makes them very hard to stop. Once you start guessing, that’s when they burn you.”
Yet if Vernon is considered by many to be the prohibitive favourite, based on the fact that they not only beat Ballenas in the 2017 B.C. Double-A JV championship game, but also in last season’s senior varsity quarterfinals, Smith knows better.
While he has watched his own team up its level of play over the season, he admits that Ballenas, too, has risen to a frighteningly consistent level of play at every position on both the offence and defence.
“Their second strength is that they have quality players from 1-11 on the field,” says Smith. “I don’t see much of a drop off or any weaknesses that we can exploit which is rare in Double-A football. There aren’t a lot of guys that pop out at you on film, but the more that you watch, the more you realize that they are all strong in what they are being asked to do. We are going to have to rely on our athletes being a bit better than theirs to score.”
Offensively, the Ballenas ground game has been led by running back Demar Hohnstein, who has carried 67 times for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Hohnstein, however, has been supplemented in that area by his quarterback, B.C. Double-A Offensive Player of the Year Ben Chomolok.
The Whalers’ senior pivot has passed for 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns, while calling his own number to the tune of 204 yards and six touchdowns.
Steve Boley and Adrian Friesen have each rushed for three scores, while the receiving core has been led by Nathan Robinson, Jacob Stockton and Bruce McCabe, the trio accounting for 42 catches for 902 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The player head coach Smith feels best embodies the Whalers’ spirit? No surprise it’s Chomolok.
“He’s a gritty, tough quarterback that is going to find a way to get the job done,” says Smith. “He’s not lightning fast, and doesn’t have a cannon, but he is very efficient and will burn you with his arm or his feet on any given play.
“I just think that like his team, he’s smart and makes good decisions in the pocket and it’s hard to rattle him. He seems so calm back there and I think that’s a result of him being so comfortable in the offence and what they are asking him to do.”
Vernon, of course, has set a high bar throughout the tier with its current class, and for the past few seasons it’s been as good as the best extended stretches turned in by all-time AA programs like North Vancouver’s Windsor Dukes and Nanaimo’s John Barsby Bulldogs.
Ask Ballenas head coach Jeremy Conn to single out any one quality of the Panthers and it’s a struggle.
“Hard to say just one strength,” says Conn, whose team last lost on Nov. 16 of last season when it fell 51-17 to the Panthers in the aforementioned 2018 quarterfinals.
“They have such a great program,” he continued. “They have been champions, so their experience makes them hard to beat. They are so well-coached and have played together for a long time. It shows. They are extremely versatile and they pack a high football IQ. They’ve put all that together with an advanced scheme that they’ve executed for years.”
Running backs Matthew Reich, Ethan Greenan and Damon Froste have rushed for close to 700 yards and nine touchdowns combined, while receivers Caden Danbrook and Trent Charlton have combined for just over 800 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air.
With no weaknesses at the skill positions, along both lines, and throughout the middle and back of its defence, the Panthers have created a situation where its foes need to play a virtually perfect game just to have a chance to win.
And of course, there is the not-so-small matter of contending with the team’s starting quarterback.
Zack Smith, the head coach’s son, has not only passed for 1,286 yards and 20 touchdowns against just one pick, he has also rushed for a team-leading 859 yards and seven touchdowns.
That 2,145 combined yards and 27 TDs over eight games, accumulated over 217 snaps, producing a chain-gang-moving average of 9.9 yards per snap.
Russell Wilson-like, or…?
“Zack Smith is the key player we have to focus on,” Conn begins. “Being the coach’s son with high football IQ and great athleticism to be able to throw and pass, it’s a big challenge. You see it in the NFL with (Baltimore Ravens quarterback) Lamar Jackson. How do you shut down a player like that?
“But he’s not just a great quarterback. He’s also a ball hawk at safety. He has earned that Double-A MVP and now he is a big focus for us.”
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