VANCOUVER — News alert: The Vancouver College Fighting Irish have allowed a grand total of three touchdowns since September, and come this Sunday morning, the day after the Subway Bowl Triple-A championship game, the calendar turns to December.
It’s impossible to know, over the entire history of B.C. high school football, if any other team has produced as dominant an eight-game streak as these 2019 Fighting Irish have.
Yet in lieu of certainty, all you really need to know as the Irish and Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers hunker down for their final sleeps ahead of Saturday’s 7 p.m. showcase clash under the dome at B.C. Place, is that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more efficient two-month stretch of football anywhere this season… at whatever level you might care to look.
Last week, after the Irish beat Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Knights 37-8 to earn their championship game berth, the tone in STM head coach Steve De Lazzari’s voice let you know immediately that the team they had just lost to was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill championship contender.
“We got beat by a vastly superior opponent tonight and there is no other way of putting it,” De Lazzari said quite succinctly.
So maybe the greatest compliment you can pay the Irish (11-1 with six shutouts) is to say that it hasn’t mattered who they have played.
And it all seems to have begun immediately following a two-week stretch at the end of September when VC lost 38-23 at South Delta, then beat Mt. Douglas 35-14 at its own O’Hagan Field.
From that point forward, a team which had outscored its foes 119-59 over a 3-1 start, moved into a different stratosphere, outscoring its opponents 305-21 over its current 8-0 streak.
SNAPSHOTS FROM BEHIND THE PURPLE CURTAIN
So, where to look for the roots of this in-season renaissance?
Well, the Irish have fielded plenty of talented teams before.
Saturday’s Subway Bowl clash with Lord Tweedsmuir will be its 14th top-tiered title game appearance since 1991, a 29-year stretch in which they are batting nearly .500 in terms of getting there. And don’t forget that they’ve sent players to places like the Pac 12 and the NFL, so it’s about more than just their talent.
Of course, it’s hard not to gush about the speed and instincts of tailback Daesaun Johnson who has rushed for 1,417 yards and 25 touchdowns this season.
But to truly see the big picture, you have to cast your focus a little wider, and appreciate stories from those moments when the rest of the football world at large isn’t watching. At least not too closely.
“The perfect example for me, is that in two of the last four years, our JV’s have played Vancouver College at their place in the playoffs on a Thursday,” begins Carson Graham Eagles senior varsity head coach Brian Brady.
“Each time, the game would end around 5:30, just as it was starting to get dark, and the thing I have always remembered is seeing the VC seniors. They are just chomping at the bit to get on the field as soon as we finish. They all come running onto the field, they put the sleds where they’re supposed to be, they go through their drills, and the coaching staff is not even there.”
It was a self-starting view that Brady called “remarkable” and the perfect snapshot to show just how much powerful a team with purpose and passion could be.
“I think the culture that Todd has established there is about putting the ownership of everything back on the players,” Brady adds of longtime Irish head coach Todd Bernett. “You can say it starts with the players, but I think it starts with the coaching and the culture Todd has established.”
In hindsight, then, the first thing Bernett said following last Saturday’s win over STM, when asked what made has made his team so special, seems especially insightful and bears repeating.
“Each week for them is like a re-set,” he said. “They don’t carry things around. They clear the mind of what they just did and they get ready for what needs to be done next. Just incredibly coachable.”
So if you have aims on beating them, that is what you’re up against.
You could sift your way through a small handful candidates as B.C.’s best high school team of this century.
Throwing any collection of candidates forward is enough to start a heated debate, and that’s good. So here’s three which quickly come to mind.
*The 12-0 Holy Cross Crusaders of 2007 led by UBC’s Hec Crighton Trophy winner-to-be in quarterback Billy Greene, whose command of the airwaves was so rare he made it look laughingly simple. They beat a tremendous St. Thomas More team by 30 points (49-19) in the final.
*The 11-1 Mt. Douglas Royals of 2012, with quarterback Ashton MacKinnon, and offensive weapons like Marcus Davis, Mason Swift and Brian Dowds. After out-scoring teams throughout the regular season and suffering their only loss 52-49 at W.J. Mouat after Hawks’ Grade 11 running back Maleek Irons set the B.C. high school single-game rushing record with 491 yards, the Rams dominated the post-season. They avenged their loss to Mouat, beating them by 26 points (41-15) in the semifinals, then trounced Vancouver College by 37 points (51-14) in the championship final.
*The 12-0 Terry Fox Ravens of 2008, who were led by running backs Joe Patko and Tibi Banica and got dominant line play from the likes of Sukh Chungh and Doug Pannell. They were not flashy, but they were so well-drilled as to be almost unstoppable.
Those Ravens went on to beat Mt. Douglas by 47 points in the quarterfinals (63-16), New Westminster by 41 in the semifinals (56-15) and W.J. Mouat by 40 points in the finals (56-16).
That 40-point margin of victory remains the largest in a Subway Bowl final in 47 years, since Notre Dame beat Handsworth 42-0 in the 1972 championship final. Those Ravens are often talked about as the best high school team in B.C. history.
Where do the Irish sit in the grand scheme of things?
Well, just like the 2012 Mt. Douglas Rams lost a game during their championship season because of a generational talent at running back like Irons, the 2019 Irish lost at South Delta because of a similarly-gifted quarterback named Ben McDonald, a mobile pivot who kept plays alive with his feet and threw for four touchdowns.
This has been a true transitional year at the quarterback position in AAA, especially among the established blue blood programs, with the lone exception being McDonald.
Yet Tweedsmuir has two athletic quarterbacks in Grade 11 starter Key’Shaun Dorsey and senior Terrel Jones, the latter now a receiver, but the starter through the regular season.
It may mean a lot, or it may mean nothing.
Tweedsmuir head coach Kurt Thornton just knows what he sees.
“They are such a big, powerful team that doesn’t make mistakes,” said Thornton, who earlier in the week added that his team had not decided what kind of defensive approach it would take against the Irish. “They lean on the run game, but they can throw it if they need to.”
Whether all of the impressive numbers Vancouver College has collected this season will carry over to Saturday and continue to form the narrative of one of the most dominant seasons in B.C. high school football history is yet to be known.
Yet some of those numbers are just plain silly.
*The Irish have allowed just two touchdowns in the third quarter all season, and both of those came in their lone loss to South Delta. Could there be a stronger indicator of how much focus they bring out of the half-time locker?
*Over their past eight games, the only three touchdowns they surrendered all came in the fourth quarter, and well after the outcome of those games had been determined. Is this defence the crown jewel of schemes for longtime defensive guru Ron Turner?
*If they need to win a close game they are well-equipped. Grade 11 kicker Ben Kolb is 6-for-7 this season in the field goal department with three kicks coming from beyond 40 yards.
*The Irish defence is not just stout, it’s balanced. Thirteen players have recorded 20 or more tackles led by the 82 of Matt Hoag.
You’ve read our previews all week.
And if you’re a fan of Vancouver College, Lord Tweedsmuir, Langley or Vernon, consider yourself lucky because Saturday’s final two games of the season will be orchestrated by tremendous coaching staffs and electrifying talent.
And if you’re a football purist, carrying no rooting interest into the game, you’re no doubt playing some mental chess in anticipation of all of the strategizing being put into place by four different staffs of sleep-deprived coaches.
May the best teams win, and may we continue to honour all of your accomplishments as the seasons roll by.
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