This time next year, Ranji Atwall will be a V.I. Raiders alumnus and expects to be watching proudly from the beer garden as his old junior football team takes the field once again versus the Saskatoon Hilltops.
“I guarantee you it will be the same two teams in the Canadian Bowl on this field,” Atwall said.
The Hilltops were too high an obstacle for the Raiders this year in the Canadian Junior Football League playoffs, but as Nanaimo clears out its lockers on the 2011 season, it does so with an eye to 2012.
Just minutes after the post-game handshakes following Saturday’s 38-28 loss to the Toppers, the Raiders were ready to talk about next year.
“This is such a young team, we have so much talent returning and so many incredible players returning,” said Matthew “Snoop” Blokker, Raiders coach. “These guys have a different work ethic than I’ve ever seen before and a different team spirit. We’re going to build on it.”
Atwall pointed out that many starters will return on both sides of the ball, and said the huge contributions from rookies also bode well.
“This team’s going to be good for a long time,” he said.
The graduates will leave a void, notably linebackers Atwall and Andrew Oake, defensive linemen Nick Woznesensky and Teddy Ash, tailback Jordan Botel, receiver Andrew Smith and offensive lineman Steve Pennell.
“It’s going to be really hard not seeing those faces and hearing those voices in the locker room,” Blokker said. “But they’ll be Raiders for life.”
And they’ll have a lot of positive memories of 2011.
“It’s always funner to end it out on a win, but it didn’t happen…” said Botel. “It was fun, to get to spend time with these guys, it’s always a good time.”
The Raiders put together their best-ever regular season, going a perfect 10-0 in the B.C. Football Conference and establishing a league record in points scored (551) and a team record for points against (83).
Fourth-year quarterback Jordan Yantz had another standout season, establishing career touchdown records en route to being named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. He and eight of his teammates collected all-star nods and Blokker won the coach of the year hardware.
The 2011 season was also notable in that the Raiders’ rivalry with the Okanagan Sun grew more heated than ever. Okie accused V.I. of tampering with a player and even filed a grievance with the league that was eventually dismissed.
On the field of play, neither the Sun nor any other team could truly challenge the Raiders. Not a single game in 2011 was decided by less than two touchdowns, so the V.I. team wasn’t as experienced as the Hilltops when Saturday’s playoff game reached crunch time.
“To take the best team in the country for 57 minutes, I thought we did a great job and gave ourself a chance to win and we just didn’t pull it out,” said Blokker.
The team will add “a couple pieces here and there” this off-season, he said, and set about trying to figure out how to beat the Hilltops in 2012, when B.C. takes its turn hosting the Canadian Bowl.
“With the coaching staff they have here, they always have an excellent chance to go all the way,” Botel said. “With players that buy into the system and believe in it, it’s there for them every year. They’ve just got to keep working towards it.”