For the first time ever, the Ballenas Whalers junior varsity football team will be playing in the provincial championship game.
The JV Whalers are hoping to go down in the record books and win the Junior AA High School Football championships at B.C. Place Stadium on Saturday when they go up against GW Graham of Chilliwack at 10:30 a.m.
The junior football team earned its chance to shine at B.C. Place with a 34-20 win over the Vernon Panthers in semi-final playoffs Nov. 20 at 8 Rinks Field in Burnaby.
Head coach Jeremy Conn and the rest of the coaching staff said they couldn’t be more proud of the players who played top-notch football all season.
Conn said winning the semi-final has proved his players are a force to be reckoned with and are one of the best groups in the province.
“That was a really exciting game,” said Conn of the semi-final win.
Several fans of the boys in blue made the trip to Burnaby to cheer and Conn agreed emotions were high that day, but when it was over the elation overcame everyone.
“It’s a surreal feeling. There were tears of agony on their side and tears of joy on ours. It’s an awesome feeling knowing all of our hard work and commitment is paying off. This is the first time ever our junior team has gone to the championship, everyone is really proud of that.”
Reflecting on the semi-final, he said the Whalers were in tough as the Panthers scored on their opening drive running the ball well to take a 6-0 lead.
“We had a big penalty on third and long that kept their drive going and then we had a few missed tackles,” said Conn. “They were fast and athletic and were able to find the running lanes several times.”
The Whalers responded, also running the ball well and then on a fake run quarterback Garrin McDonnell found Brendan Harstad up the middle for a 29- yard touchdown pass. The Whalers missed the extra point so it was tied 6-6.
The Whalers would score two more times on the ground as tailback Matt Price had touchdown runs of five and eight yards to give the Whalers a 20-6 lead. But before the half, Vernon responded and was again aided by a big penalty on third and long to make the score 20-14. With only 30 seconds remaining in the half, the Whalers drove down the field but were not able to complete a pass in the back of the end zone on the last play of the half.
Ballenas got the ball to open the second half and marched it down the field behind the strong running of Price and fullback Austin Hunt.
“We played really well on offense” said Conn. “They put almost everyone inside to stop our run but we still found a way. Our offensive line blocked really well and our backs were able to find the holes and break some tackles.” Price scored again on a six- yard touchdown run.
However, in the fourth quarter, Vernon was able to score again with a trick running back pass play that caught the Whalers secondary cheating up and a wide open receiver getting behind the Whalers for a big gain.
On the goal line, the Whalers stopped Vernon three times but on the fourth try the Vernon QB was able to sneak the ball over the goal line to make the score 26-20.
“We knew we had to keep the ball out of their hands and score one more time,” said Conn. “It was pretty exciting and we were able to march down the field while running out most of the clock.”
On fourth down the Whalers gambled and were able to keep possession of the ball that led to a McDonnell one-yard QB sneak and the 34-20 lead after Price ran in a two-point convert.
The Panthers had just over a minute left to play and saw their season come to an end when Harstad intercepted a pass up the sideline.
Leading the rushers was Price who carried 27 times for 152 yards and three TDs. Hunt had 11 carries for 69 yards. McDonnell had seven for 37 yards and a TD. McDonnell completed four of eight passes for 85 yards, all to Harstad who had a TD, an interception, and led the team with 10 tackles on defense.
Hunt also had seven tackles, Price had three and a QB sack, Jonah Hay had eight tackles and a fumble recovery, and Dryden St. Pierre had six tackles. Mitchell Moulson had three tackles and a sack while Frank Filko added a sack.
Price, who seems unstoppable every time he takes a hand-off or a pitch from quarterback McDonnell and has helped carry the JVs to some of their greatest heights, has broken two old Whalers junior varsity records.
But Conn said he doesn’t just have one superstar, he has an entire team filled with potential game breakers and admitted that going to the championship game is huge, but even better is winning it, so the team has been at work preparing for the big game.
This is the first time Conn has taken a Ballenas team to the finals and he said you need a special group of players to go all the way and it doesn’t happen often.
“I was with the juniors before when we went to the semi-finals and I have been with the seniors three times where we have been to the semis. But in my sixth season here at Ballenas this is my first year going to the finals. The last time I was in the B.C. finals was when I coached Barsby in 1999.”
“I have also had referees tell me during the game how impressed they are by our team. Other coaches have said how impressed they have been in how our players will knock an opponent down to the ground during the play making a block and then help them up after the play. So we play tough physical football but it is also clean and sportsmanlike, which is something I am quite proud of.”
“Several of our coaches have made this point to the team. The kids are pretty excited but I don’t think they will truly appreciate it until later on in life. It’s an awesome experience when you are watching a B.C. Lions game and you can say to the people you are with, ‘yeah I played football there too!’ But yeah they know they are the first ever junior team for the Whalers to get this far and our seniors have only done it twice and it’s been over 10 years since we have been there.
Conn was asked what he will say to the players just before the whistle blows at B.C. Place.
“Do your best, do your job, let the scoreboard take care of itself. You deserve to be here. That has been our message that coach Mike Seselja has been saying to them and it’s a really good one. It’s OK to be nervous, you should be, that means you care and want to do your best. That’s all we can ask from them. And the last thing is our team mantra, Finish Strong, Finish Together. Our kids have really bought into the Whaler Way and it’s paid off.”
And while the senior Whalers lost in the first round of provincial playoffs, Conn said he is proud of how well they played in the regular season and can brag that three of his senior players have been selected as provincial all stars.
“Yeah I am really proud of them. Brock Mould, Scott Childs and Coltin Laplante are provincial all-star selections for their positions. That puts us up there with the top teams. We have three and the number one team Barsby has four.”
“All three players have worked really hard on and off the field to earn this and I know it’s a great accomplishment that could help them get a football scholarship as they are being seen as being part of the best players in our province. So it’s pretty awesome that our junior team has the chance to prove they are the best football team in B.C. and that three of our seniors have been recognized as being the best football players in B.C.”
Conn said he thinks all of these accomplishments show how being a part of Ballenas Whalers football is an awesome part of the high school experience in Parksville.