Ballenas Whalers Grade 12 players take the next step in their bid for the provincial AA football championship final when they travel to Vernon for a quarterfinal matchup Saturday. Front row

Whalers right at home on the road

Ballenas football team returns to mainland for AA provincial quarterfinal matchup with No. 1-ranked Vernon

For the third straight game, the Ballenas Whalers football team will ferry to mainland B.C. to play the underdog.

It’s a role the players are getting adept at.

“They’re taking on the mindset of road warriors, and making that their challenge,” Ballenas head coach Dan Smith said.

Three weeks ago, the Whalers (5-2) travelled to Richmond and defeated the No. 1 AA team in the province, Hugh Boyd.

Following a bye week, Ballenas found itself Saturday in Abbotsford as the No. 4 team from the Western Conference, and beat host Holy Cross, the No. 2 seed from the Eastern Conference.

This weekend, the Whalers will travel all the way to Vernon for a quarterfinal showdown with the Panthers, who assumed the No. 1 ranking in B.C. after Ballenas knocked Hugh Boyd from the perch.

“It’s gonna be another very good battle,” fullback/linebacker Austin Hunt said Tuesday as the Whalers practised at Arbutus Meadows. “We’re facing the No. 1 team in the province…  we’re pretty equal to them, but I don’t want players to think we’re way better. It’s gonna be a battle, and they’ve gotta get that in their mind.”

It might seem counterintuitive to hear a No. 4 seed concerned about overconfidence going on the road to face a top-ranked opponent.

But the seeds to this year’s success were planted a year ago, when the Ballenas senior team limped through an injury-plagued season while the junior program rolled unbeaten all the way to the provincial semifinals.

“This group of kids has a winning mentality,” Smith said of the Grade 11 players who led that junior team. “They’ve had success and that started even before last year.”

And for the returning Grade 12s, last season’s trials and early playoff elimination provided a trial run at facing adversity.

“That group who were grade 11s last year really had to step up because there were so many injuries,” said Smith. “So they played a lot.”

Vernon had wanted the game played under the lights Friday night, but it will be played Saturday at 11 a.m. in a concession that will save Ballenas an extra day of travel expense.

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