The Vernon Panthers tasted provincial success at the junior varsity football level last season, and some of those same players are hoping to carry that momentum into their senior years at VSS.
The Cats, who were semifinalists at last year’s B.C. junior boys championships, appear to have a nice blend of returnees and newcomers who have graduated into the senior boys AA program.
Sean Smith, who is entering his fifth year as head coach, likes what he has seen over the last few weeks of practice.
“We’re at a different level than what were at this time last year,” said Smith, who is assisted by Keith Johnston (offensive line coach), Jeff Collins (receivers and defensive backs), Tim Thorpe (defence) and Dave Tetrault (junior varsity head coach).
“We picked up right where we left off. I can bark out a play and guys are on it right away. We’ve got some good coaches working with us that are able get stuff in quick and teach them on the fly.
“We’ve got a lot of kids who are strong mentally, and who are pushing other kids in practice. Every rep, they’re forcing kids to do better and the level of play is picking up.”
Orchestrating the Panther offence this year will be Grade 11 quarterback John Garvie, who has a pair of solid tailbacks in Zac Kronbauer and Levi Nicholas who he can rely on for a solid ground game.
“He is one of the smartest, if not the smartest, quarterbacks that I’ve coached,” said Smith, of Garvie. “He knows our system inside and out and it’s like having a coach on the field.”
The Baby Panthers lost Kronbauer to injury for most of last season, but he returned in time for the playoff quarterfinals. He also plays cornerback.
A Grade 10 student who also plays linebacker, Nicholas will be a starter for both the junior and senior Panthers.
A trio of additions on the offensive line – Jaxon Toth, Braydon Lodder and Tyler Wiebe – should create some wiggle room for Vernon’s backs.
“We’ve got more depth than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Johnston, now in his fourth year. “As far as the line goes, we’ve got three or four extra guys that’ll feel comfortable stepping in any time, which has given us a lot of encouragement.
“The thing we’ve had to face in the past is running guys both ways. Come the fourth quarter, those guys are dogged and there’s not much we can do.”
Karson Patommel, a defensive end/fullback who transferred from the Kalamalka Lakers (neither Kal nor the Seaton Sonics are fielding a team this season), is a quiet leader on the field and will be a handful on either side of the ball.
“I wouldn’t want to line up across from him for four quarters,” said Smith.
Mitchell Pepper, a lanky wide receiver/cornerback, brings speed and athleticism to the wideout position, while Travis Froom (guard/linebacker) has made huge strides since he attended spring camp and is primed to become the Cats’ leading tackler.
“He has a unique blend of strength and speed which makes him versatile enough to play a number of positions,” said Smith.
With only one local rival – the Fulton Maroons – the Panthers will be travelling a bit more this season. Other entries in the Okanagan Conference include the Okanagan Mission Huskies of Kelowna, Mount Baker Trojans of Cranbrook, Salmon Arm Golds and a bunch of Kamloops-based teams – Valleyview Vikings, NorKam Saints, South Kamloops Titans and Westsyde Blue Wave.
“We’re going to have a tough time, but in the last couple of years we’ve had a lot of success provincially,” said Smith.
“Our goal to is expand and have a broader horizon.
“There’s three or four teams in our conference that are really tough, so we’ve got to be on it if we want to go anywhere in November.”
Vernon began exhibition play Friday afternoon against the Fulton Maroons.