The Vernon Panthers arrived at the B.C. Junior Varsity Football League semifinals touting a 30 points per game scoring average and a point differential of +179 in their six league games.
The Abbotsford Panthers outdid them, recording 36 points a game in their five regular season games with a point differential of +180.
So, you’d expect a high scoring, run and gun aerial show for the provincial showdown Wednesday in Chillwack .
However, it turned into battle of defences and field position with Vernon scoring the only three points of the game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter for a 3-0 win.
The Okanagan Cats threatened midway through the final stanza. However, following a catch, the referees ruled that Caden Danbrook had possession and then fumbled on the Abby five-yard line which resulted in a turnover.
After forcing a punt, Vernon marched it into Abby territory again as time expired. This time, Liam Reid nailed a 30-yard field goal with plenty of leg to get on the scoreboard.
Following a fourth-down turnover, Vernon took over the ball with two minutes to play, got a first down and killed the clock.
“This was not the typical Panther football game, but we battled hard and made just enough plays to get the win,” said VSS head coach Sean Smith. ” I’m so happy for my boys. They’ve put in a lot of time since last season ended and we didn’t want to repeat the devastating semifinal loss we had in 2016. This group has done everything possible to push for a championship and now they are a game away. That Abby squad was big and didn’t give us anything most of the game. Hats off to them, they are well coached and made things very difficult for us.”
Fittingly, the two teams did battle to open the season with Vernon shutting out Abby 10-0 in another slugfest at Abby Field.
Matthew Reich, who was injured for the first match-up in September, was a huge factor in the semifinal , registering 12 tackles (four for a loss), one sack and a clutch fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
Isaiah Ondrik and Ethan Mitchell contributed six tackles, while Zack Smith and Danbrook both registered interceptions. Reich was also the workhorse on offence, carrying the ball 16 times for 73 yards to go along with a game-high three catches for 37 yards. Smith went 8-of-15 for 64 yards passing.
The Panthers have 10 days to prepare for the provincial title game that goes Saturday, Dec. 2 at B.C. Place Stadium against an opponent yet to be announced.
Meanwhile, the senior varsity Panthers (3-0) go up against Abbotsford (5-0) in the Subway Bowl noon semifinal Saturday at B.C. Place.
Abby gets prime-time showings from quarterback Ethan Anderson and runningback Samuel Eko. Anderson completed 26 of 47 passes for 509 yards and six TDS, while Uko racked up 922 yards and 17 scores on 65 rushes.
Vernon counters with quarterback Thomas Hyett, who went 33-for-44 for 529 yards and six touchdowns, and runningback Charles Lemay, who registered 398 yards on 43 touches with four TDs.
“We’ve seen Samuel Uko before when he came to Vernon last year and he tore us up,” said Smith. “He is the most dynamic player in AA football right now. We are not going to stop him, but I’m hoping we can limit the number of big plays he has offensively. If we allow him to get into open space, it’s going to be a long day. What makes him so hard to defend is his ability to change direction on a dime and accelerate from a standstill very quickly. They also have some huge linemen that can create holes for him to get through.”
Smith said VSS knows Anderson well since he played community ball here with several Panthers.
“It’s been great to see him develop and become one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Actually, his season this year is very much like Thomas’ last year. As a Grade 10, he experienced some growing pains early on playing at the senior level, but is now really coming into his own. He’s making good reads and throwing the deep ball really well. I was very impressed with his poise and accuracy in the quarterfinal against Hugh Boyd.”