The Ballenas Whalers run through the provincial AA football playoffs came to an end Saturday as the No. 1-ranked Vernon Panthers lived up to their ranking with a 28-6 quarterfinal win over the Whalers on a chilly Saturday in Vernon.
“I think there’s a good reason they’re ranked No. 1,” Ballenas head coach Dan Smith said. “They were great today. We’ve played some pretty good teams this year, including some teams they’ll probably face in the playoffs, and this is by far the most talented team we’ve faced.”
Vernon moves on to a semifinal date this weekend with Western AA Conference champion Hugh Boyd of Richmond. Hugh Boyd had been ranked No. 1 until Ballenas (5-3) knocked off the Trojans 68-42 in late October.
The loss ended the secondary school careers of 11 Ballenas Grade 12s, including middle linebacker/fullback Austen Hunt.
“God, I loved it,” Hunt said of his five years with the Whalers’ program. “One of the best things I’ve done in my life. It’s a great program.”
Vernon jumped ahead early with a touchdown on its first possession, and an interception return for a score made it a 14-0 game after one quarter. The Whalers were unable to overtake the hosts from behind as the game turned into a tight, defensive struggle.
Smith admitted the early deficit affected his staff’s game plan.
“It did,” he said. “We came out a little bit soft in the beginning. We did that last week as well (in a 16-6 win over Holy Cross), and we picked it up and were able to win. These guys just had too much talent for us to give them a couple of touchdowns early.”
Whalers quarterback Ben Robinson found receiver Callum Jasinski for a 63-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter, but Vernon answered with a touchdown pass of its own from Grade 10 quarterback Thomas Hyett to UBC-bound Ben Hladik before the end of the half.
Hyett and Hladik connected for a second touchdown in the fourth quarter to close out the scoring.
“Coach (Sean) Smith had us well-prepared with the perfect game plan for these guys as they only scored six points against us,” Hladik said. “Our defence was sound the whole game.”
Ballenas began the season with its first game cancelled, then opened the season 2-2 before embarking on a three-game winning streak that included the record-setting win over Hugh Boyd and the first-round playoff win on the road over Holy Cross.
“We have just a great group of kids,” said Dan Smith. “They’ve been together a long time. They played their hearts out. These kids are just big football fanatics; love the game and love each other.”
The other AA semifinal this weekend will match Eastern AA Conference champion GW Graham against Western AA runner-up Seaquam, a 77-7 winner over Northern Conference champ Duchess Park in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
The Whalers had hoped to move into this weekend’s semifinals and a shot at the Dec. 3 Subway Cup title game at B.C. place, but they ran into a Vernon squad that was ready for the challenge.
“We came in (and) underestimated them, but picked it up in the second half and gave them a battle,” said Hunt. “It was a good, clean game.”
— With files from the Vernon Morning Star