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Vernon Panthers advance to football final fours

Junior and Senior varsity teams enjoy big wins over South Kamloops teams to reach B.C. semifinals

Cats and Dogs will meet in a Subway Bowl B.C. AA senior varsity football semifinal at B.C. Place.

The Vernon Panthers will take on the John Barsby Bulldogs of Nanaimo Saturday, Nov. 26, at 1:30 p.m. in a provincial semifinal. The winner takes on the victor of the other semi between the College Heights Cougars of Prince George and Robert Bateman Timberwolves of Abbotsford in the B.C. final Saturday, Dec. 3.

The Panthers are two wins away from defending their 2018 and 2019 provincial championships following a convincing 30-14 B.C. quarterfinal win over the South Kamloops Titans at Greater Vernon Athletic Park Friday, Nov. 18.

VSS is still the two-time defending provincial champions despite winning their last title in 2019. In 2020 the football season was cancelled due to COVID and last season (2021) the playoff was cancelled due to major flooding and road destruction in the province. As a result, a provincial champion has not been crowed since the 2019 Panthers defeated the Langley Saints.

“Barsby is an opponent that we know a lot about,” said Vernon head coach Sean Smith. “They are a very physical, well-coached team. We beat them in the 2019 and 2018 playoffs, but they had our number prior to that. It’s going to be a challenge for us for sure.”

Brushing off frigid temperatures – which at kickoff were hovering around -7 degrees at Greater Vernon Athletics Park – Friday, the Panthers took the lead on the opening possession of the game and never looked back.

In fitting fashion, quarterback Braden Khunkhun hit fellow Grade 12 Scotty Hoffman on a 46-yard bomb for the game’s first major on a night when the Panther’s honoured their graduating seniors.

The Cats increased their lead to 13-0 in the second quarter on a 12-play drive that ended when Khunkhun called his own number on a QB sneak from the one-yard line. South Kam responded with a time-consuming drive that ended with tailback Kai Yamaoka plunging in from the two-yard line with 23 seconds remaining in the half to bring the visitors within seven.

Following a 45-yard kick-off return by Mekhi Mitchell, the Panthers got to work at South Kam’s 47-yard line. Three plays later, Khunkhun would find Mitchell Bond on a 35-yard post route to put the Panthers up by 14 with 2.3 second remaining.

“That play to end the half was huge,” said Smith. “South Kam was going to get the ball to open the second half and had some momentum after their first TD and we were able to steal it back in 20 seconds.

“In our first matchup with them a few weeks ago we were able to run the ball very effectively. I think they decided they weren’t going to get beat on the run in the playoffs and did a great job bottling that up. Fortunately, our passing game is just as potent and we were able to move the ball through the air most of the game.”

Khunkhun finished going 16 of 19 for 277 yards and three touchdowns. Bond was on the receiving end of six of those passes for 104 yards.

The third quarter was scoreless except for a crucial 30-yard field goal by Brazilian kicker Gustavo Queireroz that put the Cats up by three scores.

Both teams exchanged touchdowns in the fourth with Joe Murphy scoring on a 21-yard screen pass for the Panthers.

“Credit to South Kam. I thought they played us tough all night and the score was not indicative of the competitiveness of the game,” said Smith. “Having said that, I’m proud of my boys and the way they were able to execute our game plan.

“Jace Collard (4.5 tackles – two for losses) was a standout on the defensive line and our secondary was able to completely shut down their passing attack all night.”

Hoffman led all players with 7.5 tackles while Tristan McKenzie chipped in with 6.5.

Barsby advanced with a 30-23 win over Langley. The Timberwolves ripped apart North Vancouver’s Argyle Pipers 37-0, and College Heights was declared Northern champions after bad weather left teams without a field for the post-season.


The Vernon Panthers have also reached the final four, thanks to a 42-13 win in the snow over South Kamloops Wednesday, Nov. 16, at Greater Vernon Athletic Park. Vernon will now host Robert Bateman in a AA JV semifinal at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23, at GVAP.

The winner advances to the provincial final Saturday, Dec. 3, to take on the winner of the other final four contest between Barsby and the Windsor Dukes of North Vancouver.

“We are very excited to be playing in the semifinals this year after not being able to play in it last year due to the mud slide,” said Vernon junior head coach Brett Fitzpatrick. “Our players are focused and ready to play, they know we are only one win away from being in the provincial championship.”

Vernon QB Cole Budgen capped off a scoring drive that included Budgen romping for 60 yards up the middle of the Titans’ D, then plunged in from one-yard out on a QB sneak to make it 6-0 VSS.

The two team then traded scores. South Kam put together a scoring drive tying the score at 6-6. On the Panthers next drive Budgen completed a 40-yard pass to Jeff Curtis putting them in great field position, and finished off the drive with a 25-yard passing TD to Jonah Lee, making it 12-6 VSS at the half.

After the intermission, Ayden McDonald ran 50 yards for a touchdown to make it 18-6 Panthers. McDonald ran for more than 200 yards last time the two teams played.

They couldn’t bottle Ayden for the entire game, he was bound to break one, and he did,” said Fitzpatrck.

South Kam fought back with a scoring drive of their own making it 18-13. The Titans then intercepted a pass from Budgen which set them up deep in Panther territory.

South Kam had a chance to take the lead but Vernon’s defence stopped them with a fourth down QB sack by Rhett Hubner.

The Panthers then ran away with the game with big stops by their defence and three consecutive scoring drives including a McDonald 30-yard TD run, and two-point convert pass to Anderson Bicknell; a couple of big runs by McDonald set them up on the South Kam five-yard line, and Bicknell catching a five-yard TD score (Lee with the two-point convert), and then a five-yard run by Lee (Bicknell, two-point convert).

“I’m very proud of our team today,” said Fitzpatrick. “They made corrections and were focused in the second half that helped our execution against a talented and well-coached South Kamloops team.

“Our defensive coordinator Andy Shaw put a good plan together for our defence to hold them to only 13 points today as opposed to the 35 they scored on us a few weeks ago; it was great to have our defence show up the way they did today.”

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, with information from junior varsity game

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Roger Knox

About the Author: Roger Knox

I am a journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the industry. I started my career in radio and have spent the last 21 years working with Black Press Media.
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