This coming weekend, the Occupy Wall Street movement won’t be about protests or politics.
It will be about a community coming together to watch a great game of football.
The Vancouver Island Raiders and the Saskatoon Hilltops play Saturday (Oct. 29) at Caledonia Park on Wall Street in the Jostens Cup national semifinal.
Win or lose, it’s the last game of the season in Nanaimo, as the Canadian Bowl championship will be held Nov. 12 in Ontario.
“This is a huge day for our organization and I think it’s a massive day for the city of Nanaimo,” said Matthew “Snoop” Blokker, Raiders coach. “This is the epic [team] of junior football history, is the Hilltops, and for the first time they’re coming into our little park in our small town. It’s really exciting and I hope it’s an awesome environment.”
The matchup is without a doubt the premier showcase of the Canadian Junior Football League. Over the last 10 years, the Hilltops have won five national championships; the Raiders have won three. Saskatoon and Nanaimo played in last year’s Canadian Bowl in Saskatchewan, a game the home team won 34-23.
“Losing to them last year left a nasty taste in some of our mouths, and getting them again is awesome,” said V.I. linebacker Ranji Atwall. “It kind of feels like the stars are aligned that we get them back in Cali (Caledonia Park) so we’re really pumped about it. It’s going to be a hell of a game.”
Both combatants are champions with an exclamation point this fall. The Raiders (12-0) won the B.C. title last weekend in a 44-0 shutout over the Langley Rams while the Hilltops (9-1) won the Prairie Football Conference crown in a 32-3 blowout of the Calgary Colts.
“It’s going to be one of the most entertaining games to watch,” said Mike Schaper, Raiders receiver. “Both teams have got high-calibre offences, very good defences, good special teams, so there’s guaranteed big plays on both sides of the ball.”
If the football teams are evenly matched, then the little field on Wall Street might be a deciding factor. The Raiders have won 44 straight home games, a streak that dates back to 2005.
Certainly in the B.C. Football Conference, opposing teams have come to hate Caledonia's uneven, patchwork grass field, second-rate changerooms and faint scoreboard. The Raiders look past those imperfections. They love Caledonia.
"Our city constantly gets knocked and our park gets knocked. That's all we have…" said Blokker. "It's not always about how fancy your home is, it's just the fact that you have one. That's ours, so we want to protect it and we take maybe a little bit more pride than a lot of teams do in their nice, fancy buildings."
Graduating veteran Atwall will be playing his last game at Caledonia and said he can’t explain the venue’s mystique.
“Getting them on the grass, and the fall trees surrounding us, I think it’s going to be a really special moment for a lot of us…” he said. “We love playing there and we take a lot of pride playing in front of our fans and we don’t like to lose in front of them.”
Neither fifth-year vet Atwall nor any of his teammates have ever lost at Caledonia Park, but they may have never hosted an opponent at the level of the Hilltops, either.
Schaper said Saturday’s contest is “another chapter in the Hilltops-Raiders saga” and could be the biggest game some of the Raiders play in their entire career.
It’s like the national championship game has come early. No Eastern Canadian team has won the big prize in almost 30 years, so the winner of Saturday’s semifinal will be overwhelming favourites in the Canadian Bowl.
If the Raiders are going to take that journey, then it goes directly through Caledonia Park, in front of all the fans willing to occupy Wall Street one more time.
“If we can get the most support that we can from our city of Nanaimo, I guarantee that we’ll put on a good show for them,” said Jordan Yantz, Raiders quarterback.
GAME ON … The V.I. Raiders play the Saskatoon Hilltops on Saturday (Oct. 29) at 1 p.m. in the Jostens Cup national semifinal. The winner goes to the Canadian Bowl in Ontario. Tickets cost $15 and will be available at the gate. Fans are asked to wear black for the game … For a game preview, please check back at www.nanaimobulletin.com on Friday or pick up Saturday's print issue of the News Bulletin.