The Vancouver Island Raiders have the chance to win back their crown.
The Raiders saw their streak of six-straight B.C. Football Conference championships come to an end with a loss to the Langley Rams in last year's final at Caledonia Park.
This Saturday they get the chance to exact some revenge against the Rams in the final at 1 p.m., once again in Nanaimo.
Two months ago, this chance appeared to be far fetched, following a 1-2 start to the season. They have not lost in the eight weeks since, capping the run with a 63-7 win over the Kamloops Broncos in the BCFC semifinal this past Saturday. The Rams (8-3) advanced with a 24-13 win over the Okanagan Sun at the Apple Bowl in Kelowna.
"It's absolutely everything to us to play at Cali, and keep this tradition alive and play this BCFC final here," said Raaiders head coach Matt "Snoop" Blokker. "We're going to prepare our asses off and work our asses off all week to lay it out on the field here and get that championship for Nanaimo where it belongs."
The Raiders' semifinal was over early.
Ashton Galloway scampered 54 yards for a touchdown on the Raiders' second offensive series. Then, following a two-and-out, Dustin Rodriguez returned a punt 54 yards to put them up 14-0. On the first play of the second quarter, Raiders quarterback Jahmari Bennett found Whitman Tomusiak from seven yards out to go up 21-0. Later in the quarter, Rodriguez took a second punt back for a score, this time from 65 yards out to really put the game out of reach.
They carried a 42-0 lead into the half, but got careless early in the third quarter.
On the first drive of the half, Broncos receiver Derek Yachison got in behind the Raiders' defence and quarterback Stephen Schuweiler found him for a 44-yard touchdown pass.
The Raiders responded on the next drive by going 93 yards on three running plays with Micheal Ritchott finishing the drive, and the Broncos, on a 12-yard run.
The Raiders were firing on all cylinders and never really let the Broncos in the game.
"It's a process, and I just feel we're on this roll and we're peaking at the right time," said Raiders head coach Matt "Snoop" Blokker. "We're still getting better every game, but it's the small intangibles that we're starting to realize and take advantage of."
Those intangibles include their play on special teams.
Rodriguez's two punt return scores tied a Canadian Junior Football League record held by several other players. But he now has now taken three punts back for majors in the last two weeks.
"The blocking, everyone is working their butt off and I'm just finding the holes," said Rodriguez.
His first touchdown came from nowhere, with what he thought was a dead ball, players came in to give him his five yards of space, but no one pressured him. He picked up the ball, ran around what was left of the coverage and went 54 yards untouched for the score.
"I saw the ball hit one of their players, so I saying 'it's dead, it's dead,' but the whistle didn't blow," he said. "So I just picked the ball up and we had a wall (of blockers) left, so it just worked out."
With starting quarterback Jamie Ybarra still out with a broken collarbone, the Raiders continued their merry-go-round at quarterback, as Jaeden Marwick got the start and played as well as he has all season. But Bennett was cycled in throughout the first half and played most of the second half.
Marwick finished with two touchdown passes - to Andrew Deleon and Alex Thompson - with only one error, a botched hand off attempt in the first quarter on the Kamloops' sevenyard line, negating another Raiders' score. He was also 8-for-12 passing for 177 yards and added 12 yards on two rushes.
Bennett, however, was even better, with three touchdown passes - two to Tomusiak and one to Galloway - while finishing 4-for-5 for 52 yards passing and with 48 yards on five rushes.
"If we're going to achieve our goals, both of those guys have to play every game and run their packages. .. and run the offence," said Blokker. "Today was a really good example of them getting better."
Neither quarterback knows who will start the final, and Ybarra is eyeing the potential CJFL semifinal with the Ontario Football Conference champion as a return date. But they will approach the BCFC final the same way they have all season, with competition through practice.
In fact, they practice to be rotating in and out of the game.
"It's a little tough, but throughout the whole week during practice, it's kind of how flow me and Marwick going in and out have been," said Bennett. "It's definitely something I', used to because it's how we've been practicing all week."
The game also served as another tune up for the Raiders' defence, which has been arguably the best in the conference this season. Their defensive line dominated Rams offensive front, and kept Schuweiler on the run all game, even getting pressure with three-man fronts.
The forced two interceptions, had two pass knockdowns and sacked Schuweiler three times, but it was rare when he wasn't under heavy pressure.
"They are some good football players and they're great guys, so there was no chirping, it was a clean football game and we just dominated," said Gayat, who got two of the sacks.
They will need that kind of effort again when they play the Rams for the fourth time this season in the final. The Rams won the first time they played at Caledonia, but V.I. took the last two matches.
"Everybody's already talking about it," said Rodriguez. "We're really hungry and we want the Cullen Cup back here."
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