Receiver Kotaro Okutani, left, is tackled by linebackers Travis Novak, front, and Dillan Neufeld during the intrasquad game Sunday at the end of V.I. Raiders spring camp at Merle Logan Field. (GREG SAKAKI/The News Bulletin)

V.I. Raiders start spring the right way

Nanaimo’s CJFL team holds three-day camp at Merle Logan Field

The V.I. Raiders had the sort of spring camp they needed in order set them up for the kind of season they want to have.

Nanaimo’s Canadian Junior Football League club held camp Friday through Sunday at Merle Logan Field, with 97 players participating.

“I feel this weekend went really well [with] the progress we made…” said Doug Hocking, Raiders coach. “Guys gave us a great effort and executed to the best that they can do in such a short period.”

Players from across the country were put through the paces for five practices culminating in an intrasquad game that ended in a tie between the offence and the defence. New additions, some with a lot of football experience, some still finishing up high school, joined the pool of returning Raiders.

“Last year we were the youngest team, and to see everybody coming back stronger physically, better mentally, it’s crazy,” said Parker Smith, defensive lineman.

As for the new camp participants, there were a lot of guys generating excitement. Receiver Josh Tipton impressed immediately and offensive lineman Cody Upton was as dominant a run blocker as coaches had anticipated. Defensive back Shawn Arabsky was a standout and could help to offset the subtraction of all-star safety Cole Virtanen, who will move up to the university level. Hocking said the DB corps and linebackers were among the best units this past weekend, offensive line was a strength at times and all the quarterbacks had great camps.

Jake Laberge, Raiders QB, said everyone got a lot of reps and he felt the quality of play was better at this year’s spring camp than at last year’s.

“I think having [coach Hocking] as our head coach, our whole team, offence, defence, special teams, everyone is going to be physical and we’re going to be a team that we’re going to bully guys,” he said.

The players at spring camp aren’t all Raiders, at least not yet. The team will invite about 75-85 athletes back for main camp in July. And signing day isn’t until June 1, so recruits have a few more weeks to make up their mind about where they want to play and attend other teams’ camps, if they wish.

“We want a player to come here and play for us because it’s a good fit, because this is where he wants to be and I think after this weekend, some guys realize that this is a really good place for them to play,” Hocking said.

He said the Raiders “put our best foot forward” at spring camp, with “amazing” weather and good coaching. Smith talked about other intangibles that will attract players.

“I’ve had a couple recruits come up to me and say, ‘man, I love the atmosphere here,’ and they’re not just talking about how beautiful it is, even though it is beautiful…” he said. “They’re talking about the team chemistry already.”

Laberge said it was awesome to get back on the field and Smith said he’s excited to see what the Raiders are going to be able to do in 2017.

“It was a great weekend for the Raider program, a major step forward,” Hocking said. “Everybody’s happy. I think everybody had a good experience. It was a lot of fun this weekend, I think you can tell by the smiles on everybody’s faces. There’s a little bit of a change going on here right now. It’s back to Raider football.”