The Ballenas Whalers may not have come home from Nanaimo with the Border Battle trophy Friday night, but they certainly earned it.
Liviano Canil, playing his first season of high school football, hauled in the go-ahead touchdown pass and lineman Devon Harach made a game-saving tackle with a minute to play as the Whalers stormed from behind for a 35-34 win over the Barsby Bulldogs in the schools’ annual rivalry game at Merle Jacob Field.
“Usually we would get the (Border Battle) trophy, but they didn’t bring it,” Ballenas head coach Dan Smith said with a wave to the Barsby sideline. “I guess they thought they’d be keeping it.”
As near as the Ballenas coaching staff could determine, it has been 11 years since the Whalers possessed the coveted travelling trophy that goes to the winner of the yearly duel between the Hwy. 19 rivals. And it appeared that trend would hold up as Barsby entered the fourth quarter with a 28-21 lead — and the game’s momentum — Friday before a noisy and mist-drenched crowd of about 300.
But Ballenas quarterback Ben Robinson threw two of his three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to stake the Whalers to a 35-28 lead with 4:34 to play. Barsby charged back upfield and tailback Justis Mackay-Topley ran in a 27-yard touchdown — his fourth of the night — with a minute remaining to draw the Bulldogs to 35-34. But Harach made sure the Barsby back caused no further damage by plunging through the Bulldogs’ line on the two-point conversion attempt and leveling quarterback Ethan Laing almost as soon as he had taken the snap from centre.
“They just let me through, and I creamed him,” Harach said. “It felt great. We knew if they score there, it’s the game.”
Callum Jasinski of the Ballenas Whalers cuts back while looking for running room on a kickoff return in the annual Border Battle football game against John Barsby Friday night at Merle Logan Field in Nanaimo. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/NEWS Staff
It was a game of big plays for both teams. Mackay-Topley was a thorn in the Whalers’ side all evening, rushing 23 times for 258 of the Bulldogs’ 390 yards on the ground.
But Robinson, the Grade 11 Ballenas quarterback making the leap from the school’s junior team a year ago, was equal to the task with 231 passing yards and three touchdowns, plus another 40 yards and a TD on the ground.
And Canil, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound Grade 12 “rookie”, proved the game-changer on offence, defence and special teams.
“Liviano is a stud,” said Smith. “He did it all over the field; he was simply outstanding.”
As a tight end, Canil caught just two passes for 47 yards. But with the score tied 28-28, he reached over his shoulder to gather a 21-yard Robinson strike at the goal line. He made the catch even as a Barsby defender was draped on his shoulders over the final three yards and two different officials reached for their flags to signal pass interference.
Canil said he never even felt the opponent.
“No, I was just focused on going and getting the ball,” he said. “It was a perfect throw. That was do or die.”
Canil also wreaked havoc from his defensive end position, recovered a fumble, and was a revelation as a kicker after being discovered by the coaching staff in the past couple of weeks. He nailed three extra-point kicks, punted twice for an average of 39.5 yards and delivered a perfect onside kick that teammate Braydon Hemsworth dove on just before it went out of bounds in the pivotal fourth quarter.
“He’s a reluctant kicker,” Smith admitted. “It was something the coaches had been trying to get him to do.”
Running back Dayton Coles had a team-leading 56 rushing yards on 13 carries and scored the Whalers’ first touchdown and two-point PAT run to tie the game 8-8 in the first quarter. After Barsby went up 14-8, Robinson knotted the score early in the second with a critical quarterback sneak on 4th-and-goal from the Barsby two-yard line. Everyone agreed that he got the ball over the goal line, but it wasn’t until the referees gathered to determine whether Robinson’s knee was down before or after the score that the touchdown was allowed to stand.
The Whalers then took their first lead of the game late in the half when, pinned deep in his own end of the field, Robinson found Callum Jasinski with a perfect throw that turned into a 96-yard touchdown pass and a 21-13 halftime lead.
Barsby took control in the third period, holding Ballenas to two first downs and no scores while riding a pair of big Mackay-Topley touchdown runs to the lead entering the final period.
Before lofting the game-winner to Canil, Robinson found Hemsworth for a 24-yard touchdown pass that tied the game when Canil converted the PAT.
“What impressed me was how we really battled,” Smith said. “They were down early and came back, a couple of times. And we’re still not polished right now. We’re still making a lot of mistakes, and if we can eliminate them it’s gonna be a good season.”