The Abbotsford Panthers senior varsity football team is set again to make the jump to AAA play this season, and to begin play in one of the most challenging conferences in the province today (Friday).
One season after falling in the AA provincial final, the club enters the ultra-competitive Eastern conference and will have to battle perennial provincial powerhouses like the Terry Fox Ravens, Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers and St. Thomas More Collegiate Knights.
The Panthers have flipped back and forth between AAA and AA several times over the past few years, with the school swaying back and forth on the school size designations between the two levels. Panthers head coach Jay Fujimura said he and his team will relish the opportunity in AAA.
“That’s where I wanted to be,” he said, of the AAA’s Eastern conference. “These guys wanted the challenge and if we’re AAA we wanted to be all the way in and see what we can do. Our goal is to make the playoffs and I think we have a team that is built to do just that.”
The 2018 Panthers are Grade 11-heavy, with a number of players making the leap from junior varsity to the senior team this year. Fujimura also lost emerging quarterback Ethan Anderson and wide receiver Karl von Einsiedel to prep programs down south.
Grade 12 student Jalen Edwards is the starting quarterback this season, and Fujimura expects the Grade 12s he has to be important players.
“The 12s are really the key for us,” he said. “Luke Szmutko and Jeff Vanderwerff are going to be impact players for us.”
Szmutko, who plays running back and linebacker, debuted with the senior varsity program when he was in Grade 9 and has been an effective offensive weapon throughout his high school career. Vanderwerff, who stands 6’ 9” and weighs 365 pounds, is a mountain on both the offensive and defensive lines.
But it’s not just the Grade 12s that Fujimura is expecting big things from, as he likes his talented group of Grade 11s, including Jalem Catlin, Connor Mehrer and newcomer David Coronado.
Offensively, the Panthers will be running more read option plays, with a focus on the run and building the pass off the run. Defensively, the team is very similar to last year, using a 30 front and playing a very aggressive style.
Abbotsford didn’t take it easy in the preseason, scheduling games against top-ranked programs in Terry Fox and New Westminster.
The Panthers fell 35-7 to Terry Fox on Sept. 7, and then lost 40-6 to New Westminster.
Abbotsford opens the AAA regular season later today against the Mission Roadrunners in Mission, and Fujimura said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“We have a chance to be successful this year and, with this being our first year in the AAA Eastern conference, it presents more challenges,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet, as we saw in our game against Fox, but we’re getting there.”
The Panthers’ home opener occurs on Sept. 28, when the Kelowna Owls come to town. The team then travels to Kelowna to take on the Mt. Boucherie Bears on Oct. 5.
For more on the team, visit bchighschoolfootball.com.