When last we saw the Vernon Panthers high school senior varsity football team in December 2019, they had rolled to a second straight Subway Bowl B.C. High School AA championship, capping off an undefeated AA season.
That was 21 long months ago.
The Panthers and all of B.C. High School football return to the gridiron in 2021 after the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season. Vernon hosted West Kelowna’s Mt. Boucherie Bears in an exhibition scrimmage Sunday, Sept. 5, at Greater Vernon Athletics Park, and you can almost hear Panthers head coach Sean Smith looking up to the heavens, arms extended overhead, shouting ‘Hallelujah.’
“What an outstanding feeling to be on the field with other teams and spectators on Sunday for our scrimmage,” said Smith. “I’m not sure who was more excited, the players or the parents who haven’t had a chance to watch their kids in a long, long time. It was long overdue. I thought I’d forget how to coach and the players would forget how to play with contact…but the instincts were still there. A bit rusty – but that will only be temporary.”
The two-time defending champion Panthers have been ranked No. 1 in the B.C. AA pre-season coach’s poll, meaning they’ll have a target on their back. That’s fine by Smith.
“We know that teams are going to want to knock us off every week, so it means we have to always be over prepared and expect the best punch our opponents have,” he said.
The Cats have six players returning from the 2019 championship squad: Grade 12s Kolby Thorpe, Roan Reid, Landon Janke, and Grayson Statham, along with current Grade 11s Scotty Hoffman and Braden Khunkhun.
An area of inexperience coming into the season is on the offensive line but new O-line coach – former B.C. Lions and CFL all-star centre Angus Reid – has already elevated the O-line’s play. “The line had the athletes – they just needed to be moulded. And Angus is going to have them being a strength of the team before too long,” said Smith.
Vernon is part of a new seven-team AA-AAA Hybrid Division in the Okanagan, grouped in with fellow AA teams South Kamloops Titans and Westsyde Blue Wave of Kamloops. The AAA teams in the division are the Salmon Arm Golds, Mt. Boucherie of West Kelowna, and Okanagan Mission Huskies and Rutland Voodoos, both of Kelowna.
The Panthers will compete in the provincial AA post-season playdown. Vernon hasn’t lost to a AA opponent since a 2017 Subway Bowl semifinal loss to the Abbotsford Panthers.
“I like the move to a hybrid AA/AAA schedule as it gives us a different opponent every week,” said Smith. I think we’ll be fine going up against the big Kelowna schools and my boys are looking forward to the challenge.
“Our goal is to compete for every game and outwork/out-prepare our opponents every week. If we do that week in and week out, we will be fine. In the past, we’ve won with some pretty big AA stars that we’ve been able to ride. Instead, this squad will rely on having a lot of players all contributing. And that will be our strength.”
When last we saw the Fulton Maroons senior varsity team in 2019, they had advanced to the Subway Bowl Elite Eight quarterfinals before being eliminated by the Langley Saints, which lost the provincial final to Vernon 43-14.
Unfortunately, there will be no senior varsity squad at Fulton in 2021 – marking the first season since 2012 and the second time since 1996 that the Maroons won’t field a team – due to a lack of student interest.
“We simply did not have enough interested boys in Grades 11-12 to field a football team,” said head coach Mike Scheller, who, instead, will oversee Fulton’s junior varsity squad.
The Panthers’ senior squad will play the Rutland Voodoos on Friday, Sept. 10, 6:30 p.m., at the Kelowna Apple Bowl. Vernon’s home opener is against the Golds on Friday, Sept. 24, 7 p.m., at GVAP.