In Howard Tsumura’s online Varsity Letters preseason poll of Double-A senior varsity high school football coaches, the VSS Panthers received every single first-place vote.
Wrote Tsumura: “It was not a shock to anyone studying their recent history, their roster and the reasons they have to be a motivated group as spring camp prepares to give way to a summer of anticipation.”
Panthers head coach Sean Smith runs a premier program and uses versatile athletes in multiple positions when required. The Cats, who lost the Subway Bowl semifinal to the Abbotsford Panthers last year, have a smaller roster this season so several starters won’t be leaving the field.
“First and foremost, this team’s strength is they are competitors,” said Smith. “We will always be the smallest team on the field, but they play much bigger and tougher than their physical stature. They compete and rise to the competition when called upon. Our current Grade 11s haven’t lost a league game since their Grade 8 year so they know what it takes to win.”
For marquee players, the Panthers had three players who represented Team B.C. in the Canada Cup this summer: tailback/linebacker Charles Lemay, quarterback Thomas Hyett and receiver/defensive back Caden Danbrook.
“Charles has grown so much as a football player since coming to us in Grade 9 and I see him as being a legitimate provincial MVP candidate,” said Smith. “He will be our workhorse back and is able to use his great instincts to make tackles all over the field. Thomas knows our offence so well and does everything that is asked of him as the pivot. He reads defences well and has developed a really accurate long ball. His completion percentage was 70 per cent last season so he knows how to find the open man and take care of the ball. Caden is still a relative newcomer (third season) to football, and in a short period of time, has become a dynamic route runner who has great hands. He tough enough to go across the middle and fast enough to get deep. He’s also a tough defender who can play in the box or cover in open space.”
Sean’s son, Zack Smith, was the provincial MVP when VSS won the jayvee title last year and he will line up primarily at corner.
“With Thomas at QB, Zack will get some reps there as well but we will use him primarily as a wideout where he is a dangerous deep threat,” said coach Smith. “He is our shut-down corner and we will rely on him to defend their best wideout. Liam Alder fills the role of our run stopper and tackling machine. He hits like a freight train and will be the anchor of our defence whether he lines up at MAC Linebacker or at defensive tackle. He is also our starting right tackle on offence.”
Alder sees the No. 1 ranking as a positive.
“It’s our first No. 1 ranking so by no means does it swell our heads,” said Alder, 17. “We can use it as encouragement and a goal to strive for and achieve our goal as No. 1. It’s also reassurance that we’re a pretty good team.”
Trey Defoor is the Cats starting defensive tackle and is tough to block.
“While he is small for a DT, his technique and smarts have allowed him to be our most consistent D lineman.”
Any pressure of being No. 1 is being parlayed by Smith into having his players prepared to deal with the top billing.
“I have told the boys many times that if they give their best; in film study, on the practice field and in the weight room- the winning will take care of itself. We have been ranked No. 1 a few times before and have fallen a bit short each time. There are so many things that have to fall in place to be the last team standing…so my message to the team is that we must do our best to control the things that are in our control and hope the football Gods help us out in the areas that we can’t control. This group has won a lot of games and knows what it takes to compete with the best teams in the province.”
Smith is not worried about the Panthers getting complacent, believing the entire roster is committed to winning for the graduating players. No Interior team has ever won the AA Provincials.
Meanwhile, Mike Scheller and the Fulton Maroons are in rebuilding mode having graduated a great group of Grade 12s.
“We have small enrolment but will have about 46 players combined on the varsity and jayvee squads,” said Scheller. “We are playing a competitive exhibition schedule, and the highlight will be our annual game in Omak versus the Pioneers on Sept. 14. We will attend the WSU (Washington State) game versus Eastern Washington on the following day. It’s a great trip for our program.”
The Maroons will rely big time on their offensive line.
”They have been doing a great job in practice and they should anchor our offence,” said Scheller. “Guards Liam Gombrich and Logan Higgs have had a great summer. They are joined by centres Isaac Coombs, Seiji Bott, tackles Brennan Kennedy, Liam Funk, Carson Harrower and guard Aaron Edwards. These guys should power the offence. QB Evan Trottier is our quarterback and will be the leader of our team. He is a great kid and a dedicated athlete.”
On defence, inside linebackers, Quin Williamson and Ethan Schiman will be leaders, while Caden Coombs and Nate Foster will anchor the secondary.
”Our goal is to be one of the top two teams in the Interior Conference. Us, Vernon, SKSS (South Kam) Valleyview and Westsyde. We feel we can compete with the Kamloops schools and it will be a competitive, even league this year. Vernon is definitely the cream of the crop and deserving of their pre-season ranking.”