The graduating class of Nanaimo District Secondary School Islanders is hoping to leave on final lasting memory on the high school football scene.
Though huge underdogs heading into the 14th annual Ray Kocher Classic to neighbourhood rival Barsby Bulldogs, they want to end their unbeaten AA Varsity Western Conference regular season record on Friday at Merle Logan Field at 1 p.m.
"It's a close on all of the time I've spent here," said NDSS lineman McIntyre Barrera. "I really want to make something out of the game, even if we're not going in expecting to win, we still gotta make it a tough one for them, give them a black eye heading into playoffs."
Thirteen Islanders will be pulling on green and white jerseys for the last time, completing a difficult two years in the standings with the program. This class followed the Islanders' team that won the 2011 Tier II provincial title, the following year they made the difficult jump up to AA Varsity. They finished that year at 2-7 overall and have improved to 3-4-1 into their finale this season.
It has been a trying process at times for the players, but one they have learned a great deal.
"I've grown a lot as a player. .. I've learned a lot about teamwork," said Barrera, 17. "It's a program that has a lot of heart. We don't always have the most funding or the most equipment, but we have a lot of heart, and we always have some talented players that come out."
Islanders head coach Nate Stevenson is proud of what this often undermanned group has accomplished as they build the program.
"I look at their growth. .. and they've just been getting better each year," said Stevenson. "I sure look forward to some of these guys playing next year in a different colour. There's a lot of excitement with these twelfth graders. .. they're not done with their football days."
Playing in the shadow of a provincial power like Bulldogs has never been easy for the Islanders and their players, and the Kocher Classic has been largely a one-sided affair.
This year is a prime example of the disparity between the two programs.
Barsby sits with a perfect 5-0 regular season record, with the one blemish on their 7-1 record coming in a 36-30 exhibition loss in Surrey to AAA Varsity Lord Tweedsmiur.
Still they are going to do their best to send them into provincials with a defeat.
"If I knew how to beat Barsby I'd have a lot of coaches phoning me. Their defence is lights out and their offence is a physical machine," said Stevenson. "But we've got some wrinkles and we're going to try 'em out and give them some Islander love."
The Bulldogs are not taking the Islanders lightly, at all. They know their rivals have nothing to lose with this game and will come out firing.
"We want to go into this, take it absolutely seriously and spring board into the playoffs off of this game" said Barsby head coach Rob Stevenson.
"This has been circled on our lost all year. NDSS is going to come out with fire in their hearts, this is their last game for their seniors and we're not taking anything for granted."
The Bulldogs are currently ranked No. 2 in AA Varsity B.C. High School Football, and are coming off their biggest win of the season, a 21-0 win over previously undefeated Carson Graham, who boasted the second best offence in B.C. The Dawgs defence held the Eagles to 35 yards rushing. In five regular season games, they have allowed a provincial low 21 points, with five shutouts.
"(The win was) validating," said Stevenson. "When 11 players get on the field to play a football game. .. that's the pointy end of a long shafted stick; there's a lot of people pushing it."
The Kocher Classic is named after former principal Ray Kocher who resided over both schools during his career.
But it also marks another annual reunion, that of the Stevenson brothers.
Rob is older than Nate by fourand-a-half years and is always a special game for the two head coaches. For Rob, it immediately brings back memories of playing football against each other growing up, or banding together against other neighbourhood siblings in pick-up football and hockey games.
"Now as grown men, seeing him walk out there with a football team that is wired tight and ready to play a good game against us, that's a special feeling," said Rob. "Not everybody gets the privilege to play their kin once a year. I'm proud of the man, what he does and I think he runs a good program."
It's a similar sentiment shared by Nate, who says their relationship has really grown in adulthood, when age differences do not matter near as much as the segregation of childhood.
Still, he is hoping that he can find a way to be a thorn in Rob's side, at least for 60 minutes on Friday.
"Seeing Rob across the way throwing his hat and hollering, some times our eyes meet and we can't help but grin," said Nate. "It's a lot of fun. That's my big brother over there and for two hours I'm trying to beat him and after that I'm trying my best to help him."
NDSS Islanders playing in final high school game
# Name Position
3 Thomas Etchyson RB/LB
7 Marko Keith R/CB
10 Brennan Mattes RB/LB
17 Brett Ablitt WR/S
20 Marshal Dillabough R/LB
33 Brody Thompson RB/DB
55 Laine Palmberg OL/DL
57 Edward Coon OL/DL
59 Ryan Doumont OL/LB
60 McIntyre Barrera OL/DL
61 Hugh Blackmon OL/LB
72 Colin Tearoe OL/DL
82 Tomas Stochmal R/LB
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