A large and talented class of grade 11 players is moving up to the Ballenas Whalers senior football team after a successful junior campaign a year ago.
For the program to succeed this season, they’ll need to keep moving up.
“Our biggest problem is our numbers,” Whalers coach Dan Smith said as the team drilled last week in preparation for this weekend’s potential home opener against Pitt Meadow. “We need our grade 11s to play like they’re grade 12s. We need them to step up, and if they do that I think we’ll be very competitive.”
The senior team is tentatively scheduled to host Pitt Meadow Saturday at 3 p.m., but as of Tuesday morning was still awaiting confirmation from the visiting school. The Ballenas juniors will kick off the season Wednesday with a 3 p.m. home game against Nanaimo District Secondary School.
Last season, the Whalers senior squad was decimated by injuries after a strong start to the season, and the losses continued with graduation.
While the team has several key returnees back in leadership roles as grade 12s this year, it is a diminished group of veterans.
“We’re going to be young,” Smith admitted. “The grade 11 group is going to make up the majority of our senior team. The good thing is, that’s a very talented class of players. I’m very excited about this group of kids.”
Among the expected leaders are grade 11 quarterback Ben Robinson, who will step into a starting role after leading the juniors on a provincial playoff run a season ago.
Incoming quarterback Ben Robinson, right, takes snaps from center Dryden St. Pierre during the Ballenas Whalers practice last Thursday. The Whalers open the 2016 football season at home this Saturday with a doubleheader beginning at noon. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/NEWS Staff
Smith, who also serves as the team’s offensive coordinator, said Robinson’s athleticism will allow the team to employ a greater variety of offensive formations, including a number designed to open up the field.
“He is very athletic,” Smith said of Robinson. “We’re going to be doing some new things that will take advantage of his athleticism, more spread formations where we can utilize his skill.”
That does not suggest Ballenas will abandon the running game with which it has made its reputation in recent years. Two tailbacks — grade 12 Dayton Coles and speedy grade 11 Logan Pepper — will team up to replace Matt Price following his graduation in 2016.
“We have a history of good tailbacks, so they’ll have some big shoes to fill,” Smith said.
Robinson will have veteran support in the middle of the field in grade 12 center Dryden St. Pierre and fullback/middle linebacker Austin Hunt.
And newcomer Liviano Canil, a grade 12 player joining the program for the first time at the secondary school level, could prove a wild card at tight end and defensive end.
“He hadn’t played for a few years, but he’s come out of the gate quickly,” Smith said of Canil. “He’s a hard worker and very skilled.”
“I’ve already introduced him to the UBC coach,” added Smith, a former captain and quarterback at the University of British Columbia who remains the only player to have his jersey retired by the school. “I think he’s got the ability to play college ball.”
Smith said the team will face a tough test this year with the league as strong as its been in years from top to bottom.
“There are no weak teams,” he said. “We really don’t have a soft weekend on the schedule.”
The Whalers do have the skill and work ethic to compete, he added, but lacks the depth to survive another injury-plagued season of the kind it had a year ago.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Smith, who has coached with the Whalers program for more than 20 years. “We had six to eight guys out at any one time. You need to have a good 30 players to keep up through something like that, and we only had 22.”
The numbers game has also struck the Whalers junior team. In addition to the exodus of last year’s veterans to the senior squad, the turnout of grade 9 newcomers is particularly low. Smith said the program will typically get a few new players to turn out after the school year begins, and he can use all he can get.
“If we had 10 more players between the two teams, we could have an awesome season,” he said.
If Saturday's game is played as scheduled, it will be the last chance for a month for fans to catch the seniors at home, as they’ll play three straight road games before returning Oct. 8 to face Nanaimo District Secondary School.
Above: Logan Pepper leaps over the defence of teammate Liam McCaig while trying to haul in a pass during the Ballenas Whalers' practice last Thursday. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/NEWS Staff