Panthers rate three B.C. all-stars

Three members of the VSS Panthers will attend the B.C. Subway Bowl Varsity Football awards banquet in Vancouver

Ben Hladik of the VSS Panthers.

Ben Hladik of the VSS Panthers.

Zach Hyer and Levi Nicholas were rarely starters in their minor football years.

They stuck with the game and on Tuesday, they will join VSS Panther teammate Ben Hladik at the B.C. Subway Bowl Varsity Football awards banquet in Vancouver.

Nicholas, a B.C. Lions’ fan, made the provincial AA offence all-star team as a wide receiver. Hyer, at defensive back, and Hladik, on the defensive line, were chosen to the defensive team.

“Aside from being talented, all three boys dedicated themselves to the weight room, participated in all on-field spring sessions, did their work in the film room and performed at a high level all season long,” said Panther head coach Sean Smith. “As their coach, I was very fortunate to have them as role models for our younger Panthers.”

“I fell in love with the game when I started when I was 11 in Pee Wee, but I was a little chubby kid,” chuckled Nicholas, now 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. “I started leaning out in Grade 7 and it was much easier to play the game. I played just about every position, but mainly tailback.”

“Levi has a second gear that very few players in B.C. have,” said Smith. “His skill-set, however, is more than just speed. He can lower the shoulder and take you on, out-run you or use his athleticism to get around you. He was our offensive weapon this season and played a multitude of positions (tailback, wide receiver and quarterback) to take advantage of his skills.”

Nicholas ran the 40 in 4.7 seconds in training camp and is closer to a 4.6 today.

All three athletes give major props to Smith for their development.

“It was a good run; I learned so much about the game,” said Nicholas, who turns 18 in June. “It takes so much responsibility to juggle school and football and other things.”

After four years under Smith, Nicholas wants to keep playing and he has drawn interest from the Chilliwack Huskers and Westshore Rebels of the B.C. Junior A football league.

Smith says Nicholas is good enough for the CIS.

With an eye towards aerospace engineering, Nicholas is already back in the gym, a week after the Panthers lost the B.C. quarterfinal 28-27 to the Langley Saints.

“You have to stay ahead of everybody else,” said Nicholas, a B.C. Lions’ fan.

Hyer and Nicholas have been tight friends since Grade 8 and may go as a package to the Huskers or Rebels. Hyer also progressed through perserverance after a tough minor career.

“I never played very much. I was small so I was the guy who sat on the sidelines.”

Hyer, who just turned 18, is 5-foot-10, 160 pounds and pl;ays like he weighs 200.

“I have speed and I’m pretty short so I can tackle guys easier. I know how to break on a play and make the tackle.”

“Zach was our lockdown corner this year, said Smith. “Whenever we had an opposing receiver that we were concerned about, No. 81 got the assignment….many times in cover 0 (no safety help). I think Zach might have shown the most improvement (year over year) of any player that I’ve ever coached.”

Hyer, whose younger brother, Josh, also played for VSS, yielded a high adrenaline rush come the end of the week.

“The highlight was playing Friday night. It was definitely worth all the work in practice.”

Zach, a former striker in youth soccer, cheers for the Seahawks and Green Riders. His father, James, is a rugby player who will drive the three boys to the banquet at the Italian Cultural Centre.

Hladik, a monster 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, with one year left of high school, started his VSS career in Grade 8.

“I remember being pretty small in Grade 8. I was six-one, 150 pounds and I had to work pretty hard.”

Hladik also runs the ball and lines up as a receiver for the Cats. His No. 1 love is the dee line.

“I have a strong pass rush and I know when to put my hands up to block a pass. We had a great defence and good game-plans which we executed every game.”

Smith says Hladik brought a unique blend of strength, size and athleticism to the defensive end position.

“He made a lot of plays in open space that very few defensive linemen can make. He spent a lot of time analyzing film and studying opponents….so much so that when we ran scout team, he could call out the play possibilities based on formation and motions. Above all, his anticipation skills and ability to knock down passes was second to none. He’s our version of JJ Watt.”

With aims at getting faster off the ball, Hladik is now shooting hoops for Glen Garvie’s Panthers and sticking to his gym routine. Ben, who turns 17 in March, is a big Green Bay Packer backer.