The Vernon Panthers started the B.C. AA Varsity Football Conference season as an honourable mention.
A few months later and they are the No. 1 seed heading into provincial semifinals against the defending champion John Barsby Bulldogs of Nanaimo. The teams meet at noon Saturday, at UBC Thunderbird Stadium in Vancouver.
Instead of catching opponents off guard, the Panthers now find themselves in the unfamiliar position as the team to beat.
“They didn’t expect anything of us,” said VSS running back/defensive back Zac Kronbauer, referring to the powerhouse teams from the coast. “They come up and expect an easy win, but they haven’t got that this year.”
Kronbauer, named Okanagan Conference Offensive MVP, said Vernon’s strength is its depth.
“We play as a team,” he said. “We trust everybody will do their job. Most teams have one or two good players, but we’re solid all around.”
The snowstorm prevented the Panthers from holding an outdoor practice Wednesday afternoon. Instead, they ran some technical drills that night in the Panther Pit. They ran a full practice Thursday at the VantageOne Soccer Centre and will bus to the coast this afternoon.
Panthers’ head coach Sean Smith describes the Barsby boys as “junkyard dogs” who will bring out the best in his team.
“They are tough, hard-nosed kids that will wear down their opponents,” he said. “They have a great quarterback (North Rainey) and a receiver that is very dangerous.
“However, we are alley cats and are equally tough. No one has pushed us around this year and I think we have strength in numbers.”
Most of the current Panthers have been playing together since Grades 9 and 10. The additions of players like Carson Labrecque, a Winfield product who played city football in Vernon, and Karson Patommel, who joined VSS from Kalamalka Secondary, have added serious depth to the roster.
Vernon quarterback John Garvie was at Thunderbird Stadium to watch his brother Caton, also a QB, and the Cats fall to the Bulldogs in provincial semifinals in 2011. He said Saturday will be a great opportunity to serve up a slice of revenge.
First, the Panthers will need to solve the Bulldogs’ unorthodox offensive schemes.
“We have the athletes to do it,” said Garvie, who also plays safety. “They run an offence that’s a little different than what we’ve seen, but our coaches are preparing us.
“They run an offence called a wing-T. They’re really compact and they don’t have many receivers out wide. They look like a dog pack, but it’s a lot more technical than it looks.”
Offensively, Garvie thinks the Panthers can find holes in the Bulldogs’ pass defence.
“We’re really starting to flow on offence, especially with the help of our coaches,” he said.
At the beginning of the year, Garvie said the provincial championship was always the goal, but added it wasn’t until they stuffed the Abbotsford Panthers – the team that knocked them out of junior provincials in 2010 – in the quarterfinal, that they really started to believe.
“I don’t really think we thought it was realistic for us to win it,” said Garvie, who is also the Panthers’ star point guard in basketball. “They thought there was a chance, but after last game the guys are really starting to believe and that it could be our turn.”
The Mission Roadrunners iced the Carson Graham Eagles of North Vancouver 34-14, while the Ballenas Whalers of Parksville bounced the Hugh Boyd Trojans of Richmond 42-12 in the other quarterfinals. Mission and Ballenas meet Saturday after the VSS-Barsby game.
The Subway Bowl championship goes Saturday, Dec. 6 at B.C. Place.