It’s a whole different football game now.
After steamrolling their way to a 4-0 start to the Canadian Junior Football League season, the V.I. Raiders are expecting their first serious challenge. They face the Okanagan Sun on Saturday (Aug. 27) at Caledonia Park.
V.I. coach Matthew “Snoop” Blokker said earlier this week that the schedule up till now has just been a “pre-season” leading up to Saturday’s tilt.
“We expect our players to understand how big of a game this is and I can tell you, they all understand,” he said. “You’re going to see a really good focus this week out of the Vancouver Island Raiders. We know what’s on the line.”
First place is up for grabs, as it almost always is when the two B.C. Football Conference powerhouses play one another.
But there’s more than that at stake, too.
“This is a defining point for this year’s team,” said Blokker. “This is the first major challenge.”
If it’s a major challenge for the Raiders, then it’s almost an insurmountable task for the Sun. Okie was the last visiting team to win a regular-season game at Caledonia Park, but that was way back on July 30, 2005. On Saturday the Raiders will be trying for their 40th win in a row on their home field.
“They’re a highly talented team, they’ll be very tough but we know what we have to do,” said Jason Casey, coach of the Sun. “We’re going to try and beat a team that hasn’t lost a game at Caledonia Park in [an] eon. Our guys know the history, they know what’s required and how well they’ll need to play. If you need extra motivation to play the Raiders, then you’re in the wrong game. The guys will be ready.”
Both teams have put in their time in the film room to prepare.
The Raiders may see a bit of a new-look Sun offence, as Okanagan’s starting quarterback Bobby Davis is injured. He may still play, at QB or even in the defensive backfield. Jeremy Mraovic is the backup pivot.
“Hopefully we can confuse him with some different looks and get some pressure on him and he’ll make some mistakes,” said Matt Blokker.
The Sun recently got their starting tailback Armand Bokitch back from injury, and the Raiders are expecting the visitors to try a lot of zone running.
It’s the home team, of course, that boasts the marquee offence led by quarterback Jordan Yantz.
“You’re not going to take everything away from him… They’re going to get their yards,” said Alex Law, Sun defensive lineman. “But if we’re quick off the ball, we play hard and we play smart, then we have a good chance of slowing him down.”
Blokker said Okie’s defence is led by its front four, but there is inexperience in the linebacking corps and secondary. He suggested that the Raiders might be able to reel off some good runs if they can get past the D line.
Any number of factors could make the difference on Saturday – players talked this week about starting strong, playing physical, making adjustments, capitalizing on opportunities, limiting mistakes and preparing themselves mentally.
“It’s a big game. We’ve just got to be focused,” said Andrew DeLeon, Raiders kick returner. “You know what you can do, you know what your team can do. Just trust everyone around you and get the job done.”
They can’t wait to see if they can do it. Blokker wonders how his team will respond in a close game. In the face of adversity, will they remain composed and disciplined?
“And at the end of it, who are we?” asked the coach. “We’re going to find that out this week and it’s going to build us for the rest of the year.”
GAME ON … The Raiders and Sun kick off at 4 p.m. at Caledonia Park. Tickets will be available at the gate.
-with files from Warren Henderson