VANCOUVER — How do you define the image of a Vanier Cup national title contender?
How about through the actions of three UBC defenders, who over the early stages of the second half of Saturday’s Mitchell Bowl national championship semifinal game at Thunderbird Stadium, made the kinds of back-to-back-to-back plays which not only reversed the momentum of an entire game, but kept alive the program’s hopes of a first Vanier Cup national championship in eight seasons.
And the silver lining to what was a most impressive 47-17 win by the Canada West champs over the three-time Atlantic champion St. FX X-Men?
All three ‘Birds— Max Kennedy of Coquitlam’s Centennial Centaurs, Jason Soriano of the Vancouver College Fighting Irish, and Cesare Rednour-Bruckman of Nanaimo’s John Barsby Bulldogs — are B.C. high school football graduates.
It’s a credit to UBC’s peerless triple-phase roster depth this season, that the only way to accurately tip the collective hat is to do it in front of the team’s post-game Mitchell Bowl photo.
Yet as the team jets eastward this week for Kingston, Ont., site of it’s Saturday national championship joust (10 a.m.) against the same Montreal Carabins program it defeated to win the 2015 Vanier Cup, perhaps the most telling traits of its collective football DNA can be read by placing Kennedy, Soriano and Rednour-Bruckman under the gridiron microscope.
Without any surprise, the process reveals the requisite levels of athleticism required to compete at the top levels of U SPORTS football.
“But then they have that blank slate when they come in, and we coach ‘em up and then watch them flourish,” said ‘Birds recruiting coordinator/linebacker coach Shomari Williams following last week’s win.
“Coach (Blake) Nill gives me a wide leash to find the best talent in the country, so I go around and I scour for the best athletes,” Williams said. “In the end, they kind of just end up validating your life, ’cause we get ‘em, we bring ‘em in here, and they just perform on the field.”
That blank slate to which Williams references is perhaps better described here today as a blank canvas.
And in examining through closer detail just how Kennedy, Soriano and Rednour-Bruckman each did their part in such timely fashion this past Saturday, is to see how each individual canvas not only takes shape through those initial brushstrokes, but to further explore how those initial interpretations are often times painted over until a more definitive version of the finished product ultimately emerges.
There’s actually a word for it.
It’s definition: “…a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas.”
PAINTING THE SCENE
Last Saturday, as the second half kicked off, the hometown Thunderbirds were a team which had seemingly lost their way against their Nova Scotian foes.
Despite taking an early 14-0 lead after the first quarter, it was St. FX who had managed to wrest away all of the momentum heading into halftime.
Over a span of 18:21, from the moment UBC took their aforemetnioned lead on quarterback Garrett Rooker’s 19-yard scoring strike to running back/slotback Dane Kapler through to the end of the half, the X-Men held the ‘Birds to just 15 plays and a field goal, while outscoring them 10-3, making it a one-score 17-10 home team lead at the break. It was a lead that seemed anything but secure.
Yet the tide turned almost as quickly as the time it took for the two teams to take to the field for the start the second half.
On the first play from scrimmage, St. FX quarterback Silas Fagnan dropped back to his own 15-yard line and unfurled what was surely, in a figuratiuve sense, a pre-meditated kill shot aimed at evening the score right off the hop.
With teammate and halfback Soriano doing yeoman’s work jamming X-Men receiver Jack Maloney near midfield, Kennedy tracked the ball 45 yards down the field, turning on it in the middle of the field to make an uncontested interception.
The pick placed UBC first-and-10 at its own 47-yard line. Not four Isaiah Knight rushes later, including one for 23 yards with right tackle Theo Benedet setting the edge, as well as a 16-yard completion to last week’s Hardy Cup hero Sam Davenport, and the ‘Birds were first-and-goal at the St. FX nine-yard line.
Rooker, who was 17-of-21 for 241 yards and three TDs on the day, promptly fired a dart to the back sideline of the end zone where receiver Shemar McBean expertly toed the line for a touchdown and an eventual 24-10 lead.
UBC then forced the X-Men into a suffocating two-and-out on the game’s very next series, and that’s when the home team produced one of its most thrilling plays of the entire season.
Rednour-Bruckman, a pure freshman who grew up in East Oakland before moving to Nanaimo a couple of years ago, fielded X-Men punter Max Capriotti’s 46-yard boot at his own 49-yard line, and in a return which saw him field the ball on the far hashmarks, he immediately cut across field to the opposite sideline as part of a 61-yard special team return touchdown.
A phalanx of ‘Birds stepped seamlessly into their roles as part of special team’s coach Pete Buckley’s ace blocking unit.
First, linebacker Will Hunter held off St. FX gunner Ben Hadley to facilitate Rednour-Bruckman’s initial cut to the sidelines.
Then, defensive back Isaiah Ellison opened up the sideline lane, squaring up with the needed push on X’s Ethan Mastin.
From there, receiver McBean, one of the few ‘Birds who might be faster than Rednour-Bruckman, sprung him into the red zone by holding off X-Man Chris Lemoine at the 35-yard line.
For good measure, Rednour-Bruckman pulled out a mighty straight-arm to fend off punter Capriotti at the 22-yard line, never breaking stride on his way to the end zone.
With three yards to go, he reached out and thanked his pace partner McBean for his block, all the while getting a personal escort from speedy linebacker Chase Henning, whose size and foot speed helped to facilitate tougher tackling angles for St. FX players over the course of the entire return.
All tolled, despite all of his zigs and zags, Rednour-Bruckman covered the official straight-line distance of 61 yards in just 11 seconds.
Oh, and it’s important to note that the reason St. FX was forced into punting to Rednour-Bruckman after just two snaps was Soriano’s expertly-timed pass break-up on second-and-10.
And so with the second half barely underway, all of that momentum St. FX carried into the halftime locker room had vanished.
Leading 31-10, the home team, ranked No. 7 nationally, never loosened its grip on the game en route to a 30-point win over a team considered the pre-game favourites by virtue of its No. 4 rank.
Now, it’s time to find out what is most important to know about these three aforementioned former blank canvas recruits whose efforts helped bring greater focus to their respective big pictures:
The MVP of the B.C. Subway Bowl championships and this province’s AAA Player of the Year to boot back in 2019 with Vancouver College, Jason Soriano might have had the most dominant closing chapter in this province’s high school football history.
In a 42-0 win title-game win over Handsworth he caught just four passes, but three went for touchdowns. He also rushed for another, then iced it all on the other side of the ball with a pick-six.
Soriano has always been one for making new history at UBC, and for the first two years of the post-COVID era, he has played exclusively as a receiver on offence.
Yet as the season progressed, his original UBC canvas got a fresh coat of paint.
“I always tell other coaches that the first clip I ever saw of Soriano in high school was him just lighting someone up as a DB… just lighting ‘em up,” smiled Williams of the do-it-all’s recruitment.
“He told us that he wanted to play on offence and so we forgot about (the defence),” laughed Williams of Soriano, who has regularly been among the team’s top pass catchers since his 2021 Canada West debut.
“But then (earlier this season), he came out here one day and we just put him on defence,” Williams continued. “And it was like ‘Man… wow. The level of competitiveness he played with, the ferocity, never giving in to anybody. He was phenomonal. We almost forgot about his defence all the years he was playing on offence. But what a treasure and what a find.”
So much so, that within our theme of pentimento, Soriano’s story has indeed become one of a player with multiple layers of history.
In much the same way Ryan Baker, the team’s most reliable and talented defender, came to the Point Grey campus as a quarterback before becoming an all-star middle linebacker, then this season moving with verve to a spot at free safety, so too has Soriano’s big picture evolved.
From receiver to an evolving spot in the defensive secondary, Soriano has done it all.
“He’s such a good athlete,” began head coach Nill, “that he’s going to make plays just based on his ability to move.”
It might, by both the sounds and the results of it all, be the final positional change for him as a university player.
“It feels good, man,” he said after Saturday’s win. “I’ve only started playing defence (at UBC) recently, but honestly, it feels good. I feel like I found my spot on the field. It feels natural.”
Soriano, for his part, plays by a team-first credo.
“Wherever Nill puts me, I just want to make plays,” said Soriano, whose influence was felt even earlier in the game when he came within a hair’s breadth of snaring an interception in the UBC end zone. “He believes in me. I believe in him. But we just got one game. We just gotta finish this.”
For a guy who has battled injuries throughout his career and arrived as part of a 2018 class which lost its 2020 season to COVID, the former high school quarterback-turned-starting free safety has had the water colours of his canvas smudge and run with regularity.
Yet this past Saturday, no one was questioning his ability to work with oils.
Prior to his game-changing pick, Kennedy delivered what had to be the hit of the game. It might have been the hit of the season for the ‘Birds.
With UBC leading 14-7 midway through the second quarter, St. FX quarterback Fagnan appeared to connect with receiver Zachary Houde at his own 40-yard line with a short pass right at the first-down marker.
Free safety Kennedy, however, had other plans, coming in like a missile and delivering a bone-jarring but clean shoulder hit to dislodge the ball.
In the present era, it was seemingly delivered with an homage to the ferocity displayed by Seattle’s prized rookie Devon Witherspoon.
“It was just a little dig route, and I had middle coverage there,” Kennedy said in reflection. “It got the emotions going. It got the whole team going. It got momentum swinging back our way.”
It also set the table for his second-half interception, and on the day, you could almost say that Kennedy’s work and perseverance for the greater part of six seasons at UBC had earned him more than enough karma from the football gods when it came time to show that he could give his team two plays he always knew he had in him.
“It means a lot, a lot,” said Kennedy, recruited in 2018 by then associate-head coach Paul Orazietti as part of a class that also included Baker, fellow linebacking standout Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown, and defensive end Lake Korte-Moore, the latter most recently the third overall pick in the 2023 CFL draft by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“Especially with me coming along through just a bunch of injuries. Team wise, I have been here a really long time and so I have seen this team grow from the bottom up. I am just so proud of these guys to get it done.”
“With his mental fortitude to come back and just work, then to get to the level he is at now, he is one of your favourite guys,” said Williams. “Now to be on the biggest stage and perform the way he did… that is huge to see.”
And now, against the odds of a six-year apprenticeship, he is bringing it full circle in a family sense.
“My brother (Jordan Kennedy) was on the 2015 (UBC team) that won the Vanier Cup,” Kennedy reminded. “And I just remember watching it on TV and imagining getting there on my own. And now, it’s coming.”
After two character portraits in pentimento, here is one that which has barely had time for the first coat of paint to dry.
Yet based on his talent, who knows how many hats the pure freshman is going to wind up trying on as a Thunderbird.
“Being out here playing college ball, it really does feel like a dream… it doesn’t feel real,” said the Rednour-Bruckman who began playing high school football at Brentwood, CA’s Heritage High before arriving at UBC via Nanaimo’s John Barsby Secondary School where he grew under its legendary head coach Rob Stevenson.
“I was literally still in high school six months ago.”
As an homage to his Italian heritage, his first name is pronounced Chezz-ahh-Ray.
And when you bring up his name, his coaches just love to call him Chez.
That, and they trip up verbally trying to temper their enthusiasm for a kid who looks set to become one of the faces of the program however they elect to scheme him up as a catching, cleat-digging, tough running, sweep-ready speed merchant with extreme elusiveness.
“Chez is, like, he can do a lot of things, man,” said Williams. “He has that calm, cool demeanour and just plays with such smoothness and he’s such an effortless athlete, no matter what you ask him to do.”
At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, and with ample time to continue to add mass and muscle to his twitchy frame, he seems already so seasoned on the field while being so firmly grounded off of it.
Whatever words you choose, with him they’re easier to find because he seems to carry a blank Scrabble chip around in his back pocket.
And while we’ve already broken down his punt return touchdown, the timing and the intent of that straight arm in a game with such elevated stakes, was indeed rare for someone yet so young.
“So I caught the ball, seen that the field was pretty open,” he begins. “I had to lose some ground to gain some ground, so I went back like five yards, got the corner turned up and saw only punter left. I was looking to see if he was going to take my legs out. It looked like he didn’t want to. Looked like he didn’t want to tackle me, so I threw a little stiff arm to his shoudler and then just ran past him. Then I saw Shemar and all my teammates in the end zone.”
Any time you carry a 9-2 record into the Vanier Cup, the game that got you there is sure to be filled with the names of others worthy of mention.
That is indeed the case here.
The eyes are often times a little shoddy at age 60, and so apologies for some of those I missed.
Yet my notepad is filled with stars and circles and tick marks, and names like Kaishaun Carter, who I have watched since his own high school days (“Great pass deflection), Mitchell Townsend (Is he the most improved player on this entire team. Wow!”), Ciraolo-Brown (“great… start to finish), Lucas Mastrodomenico (“19-yard gain. Wow!! Runs with such power”), Demetri Patterson (“one outstanding special teams tackle”).
Like I said, too many names to mention.
Yet this was a game who’s signature was etched at the very start of the third quarter.
And it’s the journey of its three central characters which, four days before kickoff at the Vanier Cup, serves as the perfect barometre, the perfect swab of DNA, of this entire blue-and-gold collective.
It’s what makes this sport, at this level, a complete joy to watch, broadcast, interview, and ultimately, to write about.
I love how the canvas starts out with one idea, then realizes there might be a better one.
In my own way, after 40 years of watching, it’s fun to hold that canvas under bright lights and see all that has happened.
And it’s so cool that there’s actually a word for it: Pentimento!
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