HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Wet-weather woes for Tweedsmuir Panthers as playoffs approach

Cloverdale squad digs in for battle for final regular-season game in Abbotsford this Friday

Tweedsmuir Panthers players Joel Klaasen (#5 in green jersey) and Mack Allinson (#33) shake hands with members of Terry Fox Ravens following the Panthers’ 40-6 loss on Saturday

SURREY — Here on the wet coast, we get accustomed to rainstorms. But when the wind blows so hard you can hear it, when the skies darken so much that day seems to turn to night, and when the rain pounds so intensely that high school playing fields morph into swamps, well, let’s just say it’s hard to get fully accustomed to that.

Yet those were the conditions last Saturday afternoon (Oct. 29) in Cloverdale as two of B.C.’s strongest Triple-A football squads – top-ranked Terry Fox Ravens and the number-five ranked Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers – engaged in a late-season mud bowl that would go a long way to determine playoff positioning.

In the end, it wasn’t even close.

By halftime, the visitors from Coquitlam led by four touchdowns – a margin they’d nurse through the second half on their way to a 40-6 thumping of the home team.

The Panthers were left wondering how they can solve their wet-weather ailments.

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A strong team that could do some damage come playoff time, the Panthers are nevertheless susceptible in the rain. Their only other loss this season came in Week 4 at the hands of Kelowna’s Mt. Boucherie – again at home and again in the midst of a storm.

Panthers head coach Kurt Thornton didn’t mince words following the team’s latest loss on its 180th-Street gridiron.

“We made mistakes you can’t afford to make,” he lamented. “We put the ball on the ground way too much. We gave them the ball on our own 13 (yard line) to start the game, our own 2 yard line later and our own 1 yard line after that.

“We practice with wet balls in wet conditions. We do that, but (on Saturday) we didn’t have the same level of focus. We’ll have to do a better job of getting our kids ready to play in those conditions.”

It didn’t help that one of the Panthers’ most formidable weapons this season never left the launch pad. Running back Derek Best, who sports a gaudy average of 175 yards per game and eight touchdowns, was injured in the third quarter of the Panthers’ previous contest, a 21-7 win over Centennial on Oct. 21.

It’s a hip injury, Thornton said, but it’s not season-ending.

“He’s day to day. He did ladder work (footwork drills) on the weekend.”

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And Thornton gave credit where credit was due.

“Terry Fox had the same conditions we did. They beat us on both sides of the ball. They blocked and tackled better than we did.”

The rainy-day blemishes come in a season when the Panthers have otherwise been quite stunning.

They followed up two exhibition wins with a season-opening 47-0 shellacking of Kelowna, a 28-18 win over St. Thomas More Collegiate (STMC) and a 54-21 romp over Mission. The loss to Mt. Boucherie came next, followed by the two-touchdown win over Centennial at Coquitlam’s Percy Perry Stadium.

Truth is, the Tweedsmuir football program has been flying high for some time now. And Thornton, who’s been with the team since 2004, has some pretty good reasons why.

“We have a strong off-season training program called Bigger, Faster, Stronger. It’s a course kids can take that’s primarily training, core training. It allows us to match up better with opponents.”

Thornton, who shares coaching duties this year with Lou Delauriers, also points to leadership.

“We have solid coaching at all three levels, and a strong teacher-coach component. And our community component is strong.

“We currently have 100 to 120 players in the program (from) Grade 8 through Varsity.”

That’s a big number at a time when football isn’t the go-to game it once was.

“Players are down, not just at Tweedsmuir but everywhere. It’s getting difficult to get kids to try the sport. Football is hard. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s tough. There’s so much offered elsewhere in terms of sports.

“I think there’s a demand by other sports to be involved in them year-round now,” he added. “When I was young, we played hockey (only) in the winter. Now you’re involved in it all year long.”

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And there’s a changing demographic, he added.

“Depending on where people are from, football is a new concept. Games like soccer are played all over the world. Football isn’t.”

Thornton also acknowledges that football is now perceived as a potentially dangerous sport, particularly with a renewed awareness of concussions. But he believes football has been unfairly singled out, saying similar risks exist in other sports as well, and he points to concussion figures in soccer and hockey as examples.

Football is at the forefront of protective measures, he stressed.

“Safe Contact (a country-wide program that teaches safe tackling and blocking techniques) protocols are in place throughout all levels of football. And we have Return to Play guidelines. Our league follows protocols for reducing exposure to contact so (a player’s head) isn’t as involved as it once was.”

The 4-2 Panthers seek to right the ship on Friday (Nov. 4) in Abbotsford during a 7 p.m. date with the 3-3 WJ Mouat Hawks. For both teams, it’s the final game of the regular season.

“We have a lot of possible playoff scenarios,” Thornton said.

“We’re in the playoffs regardless, but we could finish anywhere from second to fifth” in the eight-team Eastern Conference of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association (online at Bchighschoolfootball.com).

And if another date with the Ravens happens somewhere along the playoff ladder?

“Well, we wouldn’t face them until a few rounds in,” Thornton said. “And I hope, and I think, my kids would welcome the opportunity to play them again.”

• Surrey’s only other AAA football team, Earl Marriott Mariners, is winless after three games in Pacific Division action and has a home date with West Van on Saturday, Nov. 5, starting at 1 p.m.

In AA football, the 3-1 Holy Cross Crusaders of Surrey play their final regular-season game at home against Langley, starting at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday (Nov. 5).

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