Nanaimo District Islanders linemen Jake McGonigle

Nanaimo District Islanders linemen Jake McGonigle

‘Dream’ football final will see Barsby, NDSS kick off

The Barsby Bulldogs and the NDSS Islanders will play against one another for a provincial junior varsity football championship.

It’s never happened before and it might not happen again, but it will happen this week, and Nanaimo’s pretty excited about it.

The John Barsby Bulldogs and the Nanaimo District Islanders will play against one another for a provincial junior varsity football championship this Saturday (Dec. 3) at B.C. Place stadium.

“This is a game you dream about and have dreamed about for a long, long time, and we get to go play it, and we’re going to savour it,” said Rob Stevenson, Barsby coach.

The two south-end high schools are just blocks away from each other. Nate Stevenson, Rob’s brother, used to be part of the Barsby coaching staff before starting up the NDSS football program in 2001. Many coaches, past and present, have DNA from both programs, Rob said.

“What have we been doing this, now, 16 years? And we’re in a provincial championship against those guys down south,” Nate said. “How much better [does it get than] that? It’s so exciting. So exciting.”

The programs have played games against each other countless times in spring jamborees, exhibitions and regular-season matchups over the years. The annual head-to-head games are billed as the Ray Kocher Classic, named after an administrator who advocated for football at both schools.

There have been a lot of good, close games. But never a championship final.

“It’s never happened before. We’re making history,” said Finn Bradbrooke, NDSS quarterback. “No matter what, win or lose, it’ll be great for the program and great for Nanaimo.”

Mike Martin, NDSS lineman, said it will be the best Ray Kocher Classic he’s ever experienced.

“The odds of two Nanaimo teams coming together in B.C. Place? It’s going to be so much fun for the programs and the guys,” Martin said. “We all dreamed about this when we were little kids playing.”

Steen Rasmussen, Barsby wingback, said there’s been a lot of excitement the past few days and everybody’s talking about the all-Nanaimo matchup.

“Either way, it’s coming back to the Island. Better than a mainland team winning,” he said.

Cameron Wright, Barsby quarterback, said “it’s Island boys making a statement.”

The programs will continue to play one another in years to come, but there might not be any other high-stakes games in the foreseeable future. Due to Nanaimo District’s increased enrolment after the closure of Woodlands Secondary, the Islanders will be moving to the AAA division in 2017.

So for 2016 to culminate this way is remarkable for many reasons. It wasn’t a predictable outcome at the start of the year – NDSS players admitted they doubted before the season that they could reach the Subway Bowl.

“At the start of the year, we weren’t ready. There’s no way we were ready,” Martin said. “We just turned on a switch … It really started to help out with everybody getting what they’re supposed to do.”

Now, both teams will enter the dome playing their best. The Bulldogs are undefeated since the regular season started and Wright said they’re red-hot.

“The skillset that we have on this team and the hard work everyone puts in every practice, it’s incredible,” he said.

The Islanders say being the underdogs doesn’t affect their mentality. Martin said his team is every bit as skilled, or more so, than the opponents. Bradbrooke said his team needs to have the will to win.

“It’s just a mindset,” he said. “We’ve got to work hard. And I believe we can win.”

The Bulldogs swept the season series, winning 35-0 and then 10-6, but since then, both teams have not only gotten better, but become worthy of playing a bowl game to decide who’s B.C.’s best.

“There are going to be swings in momentum out there and when they occur, they’re going to be accompanied by a lot of fans going haywire, in a good way,” Rob said. “It’s going to be loud and dramatic.”

GAME ON … Kickoff is Saturday (Dec. 3) at 11:30 a.m. at B.C. Place. Tickets at the door cost $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. For more information, click here. For a keys-to-the-game season preview, please click here.