VANCOUVER — It’s one thing to enter B.C. Place Stadium by purchasing a ticket and clicking through the turnstiles.
It’s entirely another thing to appear there via earned invitation on a Saturday in either late November or early December.
It’s the Holy Grail of B.C. high school football.
Today, the four head coaches who lead teams into the semifinal portion of the B.C. Double-A championships, set for this Saturday, reflect on the true meaning of a trip on the team bus to 777 Pacific Blvd.
THE MEANING OF THE DOME
Rob Stevenson has always seen the game he coaches from its widest possible angle, innately appreciating how all the significant levels of importance combine to produce an environment where so many of our most important traits can be both polished and sharpened.
So ask him about the meaning a Subway Bowl playoff game at B.C. Place carries for him, and all you need to imagine is this large man looking skyward and spreading his arms as wide as they will go.
“What is neat is that when you get under that roof, you know you have earned your place inside,” says the head coach of Nanaimo’s John Barsby Bulldogs, who face the Vernon Panthers in a 1:30 p.m. semifinal on Saturday. “You can also be very confident that your opponent has done the same and when the whistle blows, it doesn’t matter where you are from, where you come from in society, what your story is…it’s just two great teams out there on a level playing field competing mentally and physically, measuring themselves against one another where the rules are the same. It is a meritocracy and it is beautiful. Pure competition. Win or lose on the scoreboard, the game was played between two red-hot teams and settled fair and honest. The memory resonates for a lifetime and in retrospect, it was played by ‘winners’ against ‘winners’. Simply love it!”
Very simply, if that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, you need to check your pulse.
Stevenson is not only a masterful orator but a person who taps into the true meaning of Subway Bowl season.
And while his teams have been among the tier’s most frequent visitors, as both junior and senior varsity teams, getting the chance to help a class of newbies make their first trek to this gridiron Mecca can also be awesome.
“B.C. Place, was very special for my kids,” begins Holy Cross head coach Conrad Deugau after his current class of Crusaders had their share of wide-eyed moments last Saturday morning, prior to an eventual quarterfinal win over the Prince George Polars.
“That was the first time they’ve played where the pros play and during our walk from Gate E all the way to the dressing room, there was a fever pitch of excitement and wonder. When they walked into the dressing room for the first time it continued to grow.
“It wasn’t until they stepped on the field for the first time that it really hit them. I knew that they would be really excited so we wanted to get to the stadium earlier than what would be considered normal… just so they could get some of that nervous energy out. They knew they were about to embark on something special.”
A convincing victory has earned the Crusaders a return engagement, this time a battle against Abbotsford’s Robert Bateman Timberwolves in Saturday’s first semifinal (11 a.m.).
The Timberwolves’ players also had their share of surreal moments last week as their late-season surge provided a level of momentum they used to beat the defending B.C. champion Windsor Dukes in the quarterfinal round.
Now, as head coach David Mills explains, the fever which envelopes not only a team, but an entire school, has a chance to gain even more traction this week.
“There is something about it that adds a level of excitement,” he says, “and not just for the players, but for the whole school community. School staff, parents, students, families… they all get excited when you have a game at B.C. Place. We had well over 200 people make the trek in from Abbotsford to watch our quarterfinal and I would expect the excitement to grow more this week. Having an excited, supportive fan base is a huge boost, and we definitely got that last week.”
For No. 1-ranked Vernon, the dome started out being something more akin to a house of pain, yet as its program has continued to ascend, it’s becoming more and more like a home away from home.
“This group has had the opportunity to play at B.C. Place quite a few times and I hope the significance of it is not lost on them,” said head coach Sean Smith whose senior varsity lost a 28-25 heartbreaker last season at this very semi-final stage to Abbotsford, but whose junior varsity beat Ballenas to win the junior AA title. “Up until 2016, our record at the dome wasn’t very good, so it’s been nice to get a couple of wins the past two years. We feel more comfortable there now.”
Holy Cross’ Deugau has been able to relate to his players his own high school playing days with the Notre Dame Jugglers, and what playing under the dome meant to he and his teammates.
In fact in a touching personal remembrance filled with symbolism, he can remember the Jugglers casting their eyes along the horizon actually seeing B.C. Place from their old practice field.
“I was very fortunate to be in there many times during the mid-to-late 1990’s as a player for Notre Dame,” says Deugau who played senior varsity since ninth grade and was part of a Jugglers’ B.C. JV championship in 1995. “The expectation from the coaches at ND was to ‘win your last game.’ We all knew that meant to win the championship. It was a welcome pressure. Being in the dome meant that we were that much closer to our goal and it was a special feeling to be there walking through the old air lock and knowing what was to come. I can only liken it to the gladiators of ancient Rome entering the Colosseum. From the bowls of the stadium to the lights of the arena, the energy is indescribable. During those years at ND, our home field was Livingstone Park and B.C. Place was always in the backdrop. Many of us on a routine basis would look and point at the dome as a way of refocusing ourselves on where we expected to be. It was our backdrop that loomed in the horizon.”
On Saturday, between the AA and AAA tiers, eight senior varsity teams will make very pilgrimage.
And if you don’t think this is scared stuff, we’ll let Barsby’s Stevenson sum things up like only he can.
“Every year at the beginning of pre-season practices in August, we tell the fellas to dream about getting to the Dome and taking care of business,” Stevenson says. “We have a hard-and- fast rule at that time: You can talk about it now, but the second we start practice it is a Dream Goal. Think about the ‘championship’ word, but never mention it out loud ’til you get there.
“So there it is, with us all the time, but never spoken,” he continues. “It is another source of strength and motivation to carry on through the early heat, the bruises, the blood, the rain pouring down the back of your neck, the ups downs of the season. It is a part of the sinew of team, together, steeling our collective spines and finding the courage to pursue our common goal.”
What else can you say now except ‘Saturday, hurry up and get here. Please.’
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