VANCOUVER — Two more sleeps and we’ll awaken to Subway Bowl’s AA semifinals Saturday.
Here’s our look at first two semifinals of the day set to take place under the dome.
11 a.m. — No. 5 ROBERT BATEMAN vs. No. 2 HOLY CROSS
Hands up if you knew all along that 2017’s cellar-dwelling teams in both the East (Bateman, 0-5) and West (Holy Cross, 1-4) would so quickly morph into Final Four teams the following season.
It’s amazing to think that if Holy Cross didn’t beat Hugh Boyd on the final day of the 2017 regular season that their cumulative total would be a perfectly awful 0-10.
Instead, the stat which perhaps best encapsulates the respective rise each has made to stand a win away from a berth in the Subway Bowl final?
Last season, in five conference games, Robert Bateman scored a total of 34 points. Last Saturday, as they shut out the defending AA champion Windsor Dukes, they scored 28 in one game.
And equally as impressive? Last season, in five conference games, Holy Cross scored a total of 52 points. Last Saturday, in a lopsided win over the Prince George Polars, they scored 47 in one game.
“Holy Cross has a number of very quick, shifty athletes on offence,” says Bateman head coach David Mills of a receiver group led statistically this season by T.J. Fujimura, Kaleb Dizon and Tee Anim. “We have to be very disciplined on defence this week with our pursuit angles in order to keep them contained. If we give them the edge or a cut-back lane they will go for a big gain.”
There is also the not-so-small matter of containing Uyi Ologhola, who has flashed his natural skills as a rush end, but is also now coming into his own as a running threat in tandem with the elusive Jack Laurin.
“When we have the ball, we need to be aware of their No. 13,” Mills stated of Ologhola. “He is a great athlete and can really get after the quarterback when he wants to.”
The Crusaders, of course, have spent the week of prep steeling its defensive secondary for Timberwolves’ senior quarterback Logan McDonald, who led the tier in completion percentage (65.3 per cent) among all quarterbacks with at least 70 pass attempts.
“Bateman can really throw the ball well,” admitted Holy Cross head coach Conrad Deugau. “They have an excellent group of wide receivers and an excellent QB. They are efficient moving the ball down the field. Defensively, their linebacker Phoenix Moller makes a ton of plays. It makes this old linebacker proud. They have smart coaches which is another weapon and they have done a great job with this team. I have a ton of respect for them.”
1:30 p.m. — No. 3 JOHN BARSBY vs No. 1 VERNON
To hear Vernon head coach Sean Smith and John Barsby head coach Rob Stevenson appreciate each other’s program and the impact each has had within the Double A ranks is to understand just how special this match-up of top-three ranked teams really is.
From the tier’s top two quarterbacks — Barsby’s Cam Wright, Vernon’s Thomas Hyett — in terms of passing yardage and touchdown passes, to fundamentally sound players through all three phases of play, this semifinal matchup simply has it all.
And the one thing you don’t have to do? Remind the opposing coaches of just what their teams will be facing.
“The Vernon Panthers have built a program that pound-for-pound, is as tough, skilled, well-coached and accomplished as any program at any level in B.C. high school football,” Barsby’s Stevenson begins. “They know one another extremely well. They have players who have not only played four years of high school together, but many years of youth football prior to that. It’s not a stretch to say that this Panthers team has played in more big playoff games together than the other three semi-finalists combined, and that experience counts in a big way.”
Particularly last season when the Panthers senior varsity lost in the semifinal stage to Abbotsford, while its junior varsity team beat Ballenas to win the B.C. title.
“Offensively, there is a deep reservoir of collective play execution and timing between the players,” adds Stevenson of the Hyett-led offence which features not only workhorse running back Charles Lemay, but a deep cache of pass-catchers, led by Caden Danbrook, Zach Smith, Lemay and Riley MacGillvray.
“Defensively, it is the same,” he adds, “and the Vernon kicking game is lethal. They keep teams on a long field offensively and this creates a mathematical advantage defensively and offensively. Every snap offensively is a big play waiting to happen on the ground or via the air. Vernon is also very physical. They love to bang. It is really hard to find any cracks in their collective self.”
So while the Panthers look to continue a run which would lead to potentially its program’s signature win, the Bulldogs chase another run to the final as part of a what has now become a 20-year run amongst the tier’s elite.
“I love their grit and I think that is ingrained in them by Rob from Day 1 and it’s a huge reason they have been the gold standard of Double-A football the last decade,” says Vernon’s Smith. “When I watch their backs, quarterback and receivers run, they are so strong on their feet and are tough to bring down. Avoiding arm tackles and over-pursuing will be an emphasis for our defence because they will carve you up with cutbacks and stiff arms.”
And another thing Smith has noticed from afar is the way in which the Bulldogs have maintained the greatest part of their offensive DNA yet have not been afraid to introduce innovation.
“Rob has done a 180 with this group from a double wing team that didn’t throw once on us in the JV final two years ago to a team that throws more than we do,” he continued. “That’s a hard transition to make, but if anyone can do it, it’s Rob. He’s managed to blend the best principles of the spread offence with the best of the double wing and that’s the reason this version of Barsby has had such a great year.”
Indeed, Wright threw for over 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns by the time playoffs hit, feeding an eight-man cadre of receiver led by Steen Rasmussen and Zachary Taylor.
Still, Stevenson can’t ignore the dominance of the Panthers this season as part of their wire-to-wire spot at No. 1 in the Varsity Letters’ Big 5 rankings.
With its only loss coming at the hands of AAA semifinalist Terry Fox, Vernon allowed just one touchdowns all regular season against AA competition, making Ballenas’ two majors in a 55-14 quarterfinal loss last week a pretty big accomplishment.
Smith, however, knows that if one team is going to take away those huge chunk plays that shrink the field, it’s John Barsby.
“They are known for being tough and are probably the best tacklers and blockers in open space in the province,” Smith says. “It means that we aren’t going to see lots of yards after the catch and will have to fight and scrap for every yard on Saturday.”
It’s hard to not to call John Barsby the underdog, however. That’s how good Vernon has been.
“They have been the No.-1 ranked team all year for a reason,” Stevenson says. “At Barsby, we really admire their program. They set a high bar for us all and they are the kind of rivals you like to have because they bring out your best. There is not a player or coach in our program that doesn’t get butterflies in the gut at the thought of playing these guys. They do themselves and the rest of us proud when they take the field.
“It isn’t natural for a Dawg to say kind things about a Cat, but these words are borne of a hard-earned, healthy respect based on past gridiron battles. Saturday will be more of the same.”
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