The V.I. Raiders have waited too long for this.
After months of thinking and waiting and workouts and practice, Nanaimo’s Canadian Junior Football League team finally gets to run out onto the field and do what it does best – win games.
“More than anything, it’s just an anticipation now that we have an opponent and the season’s here for real,” said Matthew (Snoop) Blokker, Raiders coach.
The Raiders kick off the season Saturday (Aug. 4) with a game in Victoria against the Westshore Rebels. The V.I. team didn’t have any exhibition games, so it hasn’t played a meaningful contest since last fall’s Intergold Cup loss to the Saskatoon Hilltops.
The Raiders intend to return to the championship mix this season, but they know the best way to do that is to take each week as it comes.
“The past couple years we just got a little bit ahead of ourselves,” said Jordan Yantz, Raiders quarterback. “We have the confidence in winning, it’s about taking on the next opponent.”
And the Raiders will take on each of those opponents in their inimitable style.
“I think everyone here in Nanaimo is once again going to be excited about our team,” said Blokker. “I think we’re going to give the fans what they want, and that’s a winning team that works their [tails] off.”
Here’s a look at the Raiders who will take the field this Saturday:
The Raiders’ attack has shattered records almost since the franchise was formed, and offensive coordinator Daryl Rodgers and his guys will again be able to put points on the board.
Yantz is the leader and the league’s top passer has only improved during an off-season in which he earned an invite to B.C. Lions camp.
“He’s in full control,” said Blokker. “He knows what everybody’s supposed to be doing and he’s got a really good grasp of it. Every time the ball’s in his hands, everybody feels that we have a chance to score.”
The receiving corps returns sure-handed veterans Dustin Pedersen, Mike Schaper and Whitman Tomusiak, complemented by vets Matt Sawyer and Marshall Cook and rookie Dustin Rodriguez.
Ashton Galloway takes over as the team’s No. 1 running back after a standout rookie season at fullback.
“So far he’s been putting his shoulder down and running people over,” said Yantz.
Galloway will be backed up by Andrew Deleon and Taylor Flavel.
The offensive line will be led by returnees Tyler Oldendorf and Steve Daniel and the Raiders think highly of rookie Jordan Kuziek. Rama MacMillan and Quinton Clarke are other starters, with Sawyer Barth also in the mix.
Daniel said the Raiders’ offence has great players at all positions.
“We’ve just got to all put it together, all play as one,” he said.
The Raiders have a new defensive coordinator, alumnus Jesse Ehrenberg, and in general, there have been more personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball.
“We started off as individuals … and we’ve come together through our understanding of the defence,” said Anthony Bienvenue, Raiders linebacker. “It’s a new defence, new players, but we’ve all come together to work on it and progressed to get something good out of it. I think our overall product will be something to be proud of.”
Up front on the D line, there is only one returnee, Ash Gayat. He will be the unit’s primary pass rusher. The Raiders will go mostly with a three-down-linemen package that will also include Shane Stonehouse and Justin McCarthy. Brendan Neverson and Nathan Warawa will also see action in the trenches.
“Our D line’s job is to eat up guys and [our linebackers’] job is to flow around and make plays and we feel really confident about that,” said Blokker.
That’s because the linebacking corps is a veteran unit that returns three starters – Glenn Boyce, Jon Jones and Dylan Chapdelaine – plus the converted fullback Bienvenue, who has also been impressive.
The group of defensive backs is led by veteran Tremaine Apperley, who the Raiders expect to be a playmaker. Returnee Ariel Fabbro is another ball-hawk on the unit and new safety Rockenson Angrand is an athletic, energetic addition. Other DBs who will play important roles will be Elliot Jones, Alex Shackleton, Erling Skuggedal and Prince Hylton.
The Raiders expect the kicking game to be a strength as Mark Mueller, one of junior football’s all-time leading scorers, already appears to be in mid-season form.
Returning kicks will be Rodriguez and Deleon, with Sawyer and Angrand also getting opportunities.
The V.I. Raiders play the Westshore Rebels on Saturday (Aug. 4) in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Victoria’s Bear Mountain Stadium. The Raiders’ home opener will be Aug. 11 at 5 p.m. at Caledonia Park against the Langley Rams … This Friday (Aug. 3) from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., players will be signing autographs at Island Savings at Woodgrove Centre.