VANCOUVER — They have not faced each other since the 2012 season, so you can’t say there is any kind of traditional rivalry set to write its next chapter when Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers and East Vancouver’s unranked Notre Dame Jugglers take to the field in gridiron battle Saturday (5 p.m.) in a Subway Bowl Triple A semifinal clash at B.C. Place Stadium.
Seven seasons ago, sandwiched in between conference games as part of an open week, the two teams met at Burnaby Lake in what would be a decisive 41-13 victory for the Jamel Lyles-led Panthers.
Yet even without a long-standing tradition, there is so much for the football purist to love about a matchup which at once highlights what versatility on the gridiron is all about, and just how much better teams can get over the course of a long season.
And when it comes to the former, it’s what jumps out the most for Notre Dame’s veteran head coach Denis Kelly as he studied what has made the 2019 Panthers, a former No. 1-ranked team this season, such a daunting and resilient group.
“I would say the speed and quickness possessed by players in multiple positions would be the outstanding quality of this Tweedsmuir team,” said Kelly who cast his gaze through all three phases of the game.
“Their backs, linebackers and even their linemen are very quick,” he continued, of the quality that makes every one of their schemes that much harder to contend with. “It’s what makes them dangerous on every snap and special teams play of the game. There are so many potential game-breakers to be concerned about.”
How many teams have three running backs gain approximately 500 yards apiece along the ground in the same season like the Panthers did with Tremel States-Jones, Noah Anderson and Haydn Stomperud?
How many teams can move their No. 1 quarterback to receiver and still win a pick ’em playoff game like Lord Tweedsmuir did against New Westminster last week, because they have a back-up at the game’s most vital position who can be just as effective, and with a contrasting style to boot?
In fact ask Kelly what single facet of the team best exemplifies the LT spirit, and in the spirit of versatility (and the freshest game film), how could he not look at what unfolded last week between regular starting QB Terrel Jones and back-up Key’Shaun Dorsey, the latter of whom had only thrown four passes over the course of the regular season but went 13-of-18 for 239 yards and three touchdowns?
“Their two quarterbacks best exemplify their team’s strength because each guy has great quickness and speed,” says Kelly. “They have played on both sides of the ball as well and are both excellent defenders. We have to be concerned not only with their passing but with their running ability at all times. It’s hard to prepare for that because we can’t replicate their talents in practice. We will just have to get ready as best we can and deal with them on Saturday.”
But so too, has been the rise of the Jugglers under Kelly, who watched as his team scuffled along most of the season, before finally getting healthy and then hot, when it mattered most.
Now, they are the poster for team re-invention and belief in the daily power of improvement over the course of a season.
“I think the greatest strength Notre Dame possesses is their commitment to continuous improvement,” says LT head coach Kurt Thornton. “When coach Kelly was at Mouat, we always wanted to play them early in the season because they always got better as the season progressed. It was not uncommon for them to take some losses, then end up in the semi-finals or finals.
“He finds what his team is good at and gets the most out of his players,” added Thornton. “Notre Dame has continued to improve throughout the year. In watching their film, they got sharper and sharper until they finally broke through the past few weeks. They are committed to their system and will be a tough opponent as a result. I know they will be prepared.”
The pass hasn’t been a huge part of the Jugglers’ attack, but in key situations, pivot Carmello Renzullo III has been everything the team has needed, passing at a 61 per cent clip for 237 yards and two scores in wins over both Abbotsford and No. 1 South Delta.
Matthew Battad, Austin Longstaff and Denis Moses have been the primary targets, as has running back Vincenzo Nardulli, who heading into Saturday’s game would appear to be the guy with the single-biggest responsibility on his shoulders.
Nardulli has carried 53 of the team’s 76 handoffs out of the backfield for the Jugglers in the playoffs, and with teams more keenly trained on him than ever, he’s still managed to carry for 273 yards and seven touchdowns in the second season.
Thornton, like the rest of the coaches around the province, has seen the rise of Nardulli’s profile coincide with the Jugglers’ overall rise to Final Four status.
To him, he clearly represents what the 2019 Jugglers are all about in terms of daily improvement and the will to move forward.
“He’s a tough, physical runner who will run you over and break tackles,” Thornton explains. “He uses his lead blockers effectively and he’s improved as the season has progressed.”
There’s also another part of his game as well, and that is what he does on defence as a middle linebacker.
“He’s also their leading tackler,” adds Thornton. “For a player to take on all the carries that Nardulli does, then turn around and lead the defence speaks to his physical strength and toughness. Based on the film I’ve seen, he’s the type of player every high school coach would love to have on their roster.”
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