Panthers star running back Samwel Uko, battling against an STMC defender on Friday, will be a big part of the Abbotsford offence in 2017. (John Morrow)

Panthers star running back Samwel Uko, battling against an STMC defender on Friday, will be a big part of the Abbotsford offence in 2017. (John Morrow)

Abbotsford Panthers 2017: Back in AA

Senior varsity football team hailed as an early favourite for provincial champion

The expectations are high for the Abbotsford Panthers senior varsity football team this year.

After a successful one-year stint in the AAA tier, the Panthers are back in AA for 2017 and have been pegged as one of the early provincial champion favourites.

Much of the team that went unbeaten in regular-season play in 2016, and then fell in the quarterfinals of the Subway Bowl, is back – just with more polish and experience.

Panthers head coach Jay Fujimura said the school’s lower overall numbers meant a bump down to AA, but he’s confident that his team should be competitive playing against old foes.

“A lot of the guys have returned from last year and they really haven’t missed a beat,” he said. “The Grade 11s we have now were brought up and some played last year, and I think all of our guys are ready to go.”

Talented running back Samwel Uko will be one of the important pieces on the Panthers offensive push.

The Grade 12 student averaged 189 yards rushing per game in AAA play last year, and has the potential to put up some eye-popping numbers in AA competition.

Uko exploded for 380 yards rushing and four touchdowns in the Panthers’ first-round playoff game last year, but it won’t be a one-man show for the team.

Fujimura said his quarterback, Ethan Anderson, is more than ready to step up into the starting job. The Grade 10 student saw limited action last year when former starter John Madigan was hurt and, despite his youth, Fujimura feels he will be able to thrive in the pocket.

“He’s worked really hard and I’m more than comfortable going with him as our starter,” he said. “He knows the system and he knows the offence. He’s still young but he’s definitely at a point in his development where he can start at a varsity level.”

Fujimura said on the defensive side that he will lean on Sahil Sahota to set the tone. The Grade 12 student will be manning both the defensive and offensive lines and has the size and speed to make an impact on every play.

Fujimura said the 2017 Panthers will not be a whole lot different than teams in previous years, but just with more youth and speed.

“We’re pretty balanced on both sides of the ball like we were last year,” he said. “It’s a very similar team to last year, just younger and a little faster. We lost a bit of our size but I think we’re faster than last year. It’ll be a balanced offence, and on defence we’re big up front and quick on the edge, so you can expect a pretty similar style to what we’ve played the past few years.”

The last time the Panthers were in AA they advanced all the way to the 2015 provincial final, but ultimately came up short. That team featured Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool, and this year’s team still has a connection to that year.

Six players – Uko, Sahota, Luke Szmutko, Anthony Phan, Gavin Khatar and Johnny Stevenson – were on that team and will be playing their final years as Panthers, battling again for the AA crown.

Fujimura chuckled when asked if the Panthers had unfinished business in AA, but said he thinks his team should be able to peak at the right time.

“We’re not quite where I want us to be right now but we’re getting there,” he said. “If we keep progressing and doing the right things, I think we could have a really strong finish this year.”

The Panthers have tested themselves early against strong competition in their exhibition schedule. They lost 34-7 to the Notre Dame Jugglers of the AAA tier on Sept. 8 and also fell 38-0 to St. Thomas More Collegiate Knights – also of AAA – on Sept. 15.

Abbotsford returns to action today (Friday) to close out their exhibition schedule against the Windsor Secondary Dukes in North Vancouver at 3:45 p.m.

Today’s game will be a huge test for the Panthers, as early-season rankings have the Panthers at number one in AA and the Dukes at number two.

“Those rankings always change,” Fujimura said. “But it’s nice to be recognized like that. I think the guys appreciate the nod, but it’s a long season and you have to win games.”

He added that Windsor is one of the teams that will challenge Abbotsford for the provincial title.

“Windsor has some skilled athletes,” he said. “And G.W. Graham is another big team. Ballenas on the Island will also be strong and I think Vernon has a good team this year as well.”

The Panthers open the regular season on Oct. 6, when they host the Samuel Roberts Technical Titans at the Abbotsford Senior Secondary field. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.