VANCOUVER — It’s a tribute to the heart and the immense capabilities of Parksville’s No. 2 Ballenas Whalers that the No. 1-ranked, defending B.C. champion Vernon Panthers finally looked to have been solved over much of the opening half of a Subway Bowl AA semifinal played Saturday afternoon at B.C. Place Stadium.
Play after play, series after series, the Ballenas front was playing the kind of disruptive defence needed to slow the always-dangerous Panthers’ offence, and they were shutting off the passing options, too.
Yet once the Okanagan powerhouse got a sniff of success, it inhaled deeply and rediscovered itself in a big way en route to a 37-0 win over the Whalers (8-1) and chance next week to repeat as Subway Bowl champions.
Led by the sublime play of quarterback/free safety Zack Smith, the AA Player of the Year, Vernon (9-0) scored two touchdowns over the final two minutes of the opening half, and from that point forward, the flood-gates opened.
With 1:58 remaining in the opening half, Vernon quarterback Zack Smith connected on a 17-yard touchdown pass in the end zone to receiver Johnathan Bielski for a 6-0 lead.
Then, on Ballenas’ ensuing possession, Smith picked off Ballenas quarterback Ben Chomolok and returned it 55 yards to the Whalers’ five-yard line.
From there, after Smith hit tight end Will Satterthwaite for a touchdown, he called his own number on the ensuing two-point convert to make it 14-0 with just a handful of seconds remaining in the first half.
“We couldn’t get into a rhythm and nothing was really open,” said Smith with his quarterbacking hat on. “It was tough because there was not enough time to get open and my scrambling (options) weren’t there. They did a good job containing me, but then we went into hurry-up a bit.”
That led to the first score, and as Ballenas head coach Danny Smith said later, the start of trouble for his team on the day.
“We had trouble with our O-line today, we couldn’t get our run game going,” said Smith, the former star UBC quarterback. “Our defence played really well, but once we made a couple of mistakes near the end of the first half, the kids lost their confidence. Against a team like Vernon, you just can’t do that. They are just so good.”
Vernon head coach Sean Smith acknowledged the hurry-up offence’s impact, yet after his son Zack made the interception and returned it to the Ballenas five, he was prepared to play things a little more conservatively with a good kicker in Liam Reid.
“We were going to kick a field goal, we had nine seconds left when Zack got tackled on the five, but they all convinced me to go for it, and it was the right call,” coach Smith said. “That pick-off wound up being huge.”
After that late first-half surge, Vernon was able to build on its 14-0 halftime lead in the third quarter.
After Smith’s second pick of the game eventually led to a field-position victory which forced the Whalers to concede a safety, the Panthers proceeded to tack on another major when Caden Danbrook took a wildcat snap on fourth-and-one from the Whalers’ two-yard line and surged across the goal line for a touchdown.
Reid’s point-after conversion made it 23-0 with 1:22 left in the third quarter.
Danbrook later scored on a two-yard run early in the fourth quarter for a 30-0 lead, before Reid scored a defensive touchdown, scooping up a high snap which eluded Chomolok, and walking two yards into the end zone to make the 37-0 final score complete.
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