The Vancouver Island Raiders are back on top of the B.C. Football Conference. They have reeled off fourstraight wins, including 41-27 over the Langley Rams on Saturday at Caledonia Park, to go from 1-2 to 5-2 and first place.
It has been a huge turnaround for the Raiders who were appeared uncharacteristically disjointed following a 17-3 loss in Week 2 to the Okanagan Sun and out classed in a 36-28 loss to the Rams in Nanaimo in Week 3. They have done some major growing up since then.
"We're starting to play some Raiders football and it's starting to remind me of years past," said No. 1 receiver Whitman Tomusiak, who spent all week practicing with the B.C. Lions. "We've got a bit more healthy, and we've got a young team so we're starting to click better. We're still not perfect, but obviously we're playing much better football."
The Raiders, Rams and Sun all have identical 5-2 records, but the Raiders hold the head-to-head point-spread tiebreaker against both teams. They have one more game against the Rams and two against the Westshore Rebels.
Defensive captain Cole Bishop set the tone early for the Raiders, breaking up a couple of passes to Langley receiver Daniel English and then lighting up receiver Tyron Ledingham with arguably the hit of the V.I. season to end the first quarter with the score tied 7-7. Ledingham was not heard from again in the game.
"As a corner, you don't get those shots very often, you usually get them playing safety,"
said Bishop. "It's always nice to get a big hit like that and get the team jacked up on the sidelines, especially against a team like this where momentum is a huge thing and you've got to be excited all the time."
Bishop started the season at safety but was moved to corner after Week 4 and has played like one of the best in the BCFC since. Last weekend in their 45-17 win over the Sun, he had two interceptions and helped shutdown Okanagan quarterback Theo Deezar.
"He's had four good games in a row where he's gone to the next level, and he has to, he's our guy," said Raiders head coach Matt "Snoop" Blokker. "He's giving us a chance where we don't have to double their top guy, and he showed it today."
The game was seemingly put out of reach early late in the second quarter.
Backed up inside their own 10-yard line, Langley Rams kicker Steven Thomas surrendered a safety to put V.I. up 20-8, then on the ensuing kickoff, Mikhail Maloff returned it 95 yards for a major and Ryan Jones' extra point made it 27-8 at 11:09.
Maloff, who has been banged up this year, showed off his speed, finding the corner and tearing down the right sideline.
Blokker is expecting more of the same out of the back up running back as the season wears on.
"The difference between early in the season and now, is we're accepting our roles and we're getting excited about our roles," said Blokker.
"Now we're starting to realize it's pretty cool when you got whatever role it is and you're succeeding at it, and that's Raider football."
The Rams did not wilt, however, putting up 10 points on a passing touchdown from Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren to running back Jacob Currey at 13:26 and a 24-yard field goal by Thomas as the half expired to pull to 27-18.
With the score 34-18 for the home team in the third quarter, the Rams pulled off their own nine-point swing, as Jones surrendered a safety on a punt and then Nathan Lund returned the kickoff for a Langley touchdown to make it 34-27.
But V.I. responded immediately as quarterback Jamie Ybarra hit Dylan Schrot for a 65-yard touchdown pass on their next series and put the Raiders up 41-27.
It was the kind of response that lets Blokker know this team is a legitimate first place team.
"As a head coach, that's everything. It's all about how you respond, even when you score, how are you going to respond the next play and keeping your focus," said Blokker.
Schrot clearly benefited from the attention paid Tomusiak, who still managed several big catches, including a 70-yard major as he blew by his corner on a go route and was hit in stride by Ybarra.
The young quarterback - who appears to have a strangle hold on the starting job - says the presence of Tomusiak is making his job easy.
"Everyone's stepping up and I'm just loving it," said Ybarra, who finished with three touchdowns - two passing, one running - and three interceptions. "I don't have to worry about reading off a receiver because everyone's got a chance to make a play and I know they will if they have a chance to do it."
Tomusiak had plenty of motivation for this game, responding to Rams' offensive lineman Jamie Wandell's threat to take out a Raiders players' knee, but mostly he was concerned with grabbing first place in the BCFC.
"I don't think it was the organization saying that, but they definitely had a player saying he was going to come over here and blow out one of our knees," he said, who announced is anger in a tweet on Friday night. "There's trash talk and then there's things where guy work 10 years of their life and it can all be gone with a knee injury.
"I've played this team a bunch and I respect their organization. .. it was one guy."
Ybarra, meanwhile, had an uneven day, but showed the ability to bounce back from mistakes, including his three interceptions.
"It's something that's been instilled in me, you can't get too emotional with thing, you've got to stay even the whole time," he said. "I've really learned how not to get too upset over bad things and move on to the next play. A short memory is the biggest thing a quarterbaqck has to have."
He enjoyed the rare opportunity to play in front of his birth father, also named Jamie Ybarra, who was up from San Jose, Calif., and his mother, out from Winnipeg.
"It's definitely another reason why I stepped up so big today, I've got to perform for the family," he said.
The Raiders once again showed their versatility on offence. One week after spending all day running the ball down the throat of the Sun's defence, they were the complete opposite this week, reverting to a more familiar passhappy scheme. This was, however, due in some part to losing starting full back Ashton Galloway to an undisclosed injury in the first half, following a 50-yard reception that set up their first score.
"It changed up our blocking, because he's such a great blocker back there and can take on a linebacker one-on one or a D-end, so that hurt us a little bit. But I though (Taylor Flavel) did a great job for a guy coming off injury and not getting many reps," said Blokker.
Up next for the Raiders is a trip to Victoria to play the Rebels on Saturday at 7 p.m.
© Copyright 2013