It was July 30 when the Westshore Rebels announced to the rest of the B.C. Football Conference that they would be a force in 2016 with a dominant win over the Vancouver Island Raiders.
The two teams have taken different paths to the playoffs since then, the Rebels losing just once on their way to a conference-leading 8-1-1 record, and the Raiders struggling with consistency before an impressive finish, which included a 14-8 upset of the Okanagan Sun in the penultimate game of the regular season.
The rivals played to a draw in their second matchup of the season on Sept. 17 in Nanaimo, but a tie won’t be a possibility on Saturday when these two teams battle for Island supremacy and a berth in the Cullen Cup, the BCFC’s championship game.
In that 25-25 contest, the Raiders did as well as any team has all year in limiting the production of Rebels star running backs Jamel Lyles, who rushed for 118 yards on 17 attempts, and Trey Campbell, who managed just 25 yards on eight totes.
“I want to give them credit … their kids played very impassioned, very disciplined football,” said Rebels head coach J.C. Boice.
The game took place on natural grass at Nanaimo’s Caledonia Park, and Boice believes that field conditions had a hand in slowing down the Rebels ground attack.
“That grass field was difficult to play on; it’s not our nice turf at Westhills Stadium,” he said, adding that Lyles and some Westshore offensive lineman were banged up that week and weren’t able to practice leading up to the game.
Rain and wind could be a factor on Saturday as a weather system is forecast to linger over the Island through the weekend. But footing shouldn’t be a problem for either team on the artificial turf at Westhills.
“We’re very good on turf. We’re physical and we’re fast. We don’t have to worry about slipping,” Boice said.
With the Rebels running game having a quieter than usual outing in Nanaimo, it was Nathaniel Pinto who stepped up to lead the offensive charge. The speedy receiver got loose for 161 yards and two scores on five receptions.
Quarterback Ashton MacKinnon’s growing connection with Pinto has been a big part of a resurgence for the Rebels’ once-dormant passing attack.
On defence, the Rebels have been vulnerable against the pass at times this season, and the Sept. 17 contest was no exception, with Raiders quarterback Jacob Laberge throwing for 328 yards, albeit on a whopping 45 attempts.
Dustin Rodriguez and Brycen Mayoh were the Raiders receivers who led the charge, combining for 208 yards through the air. Laberge ran for 44 yards on the ground, but Westshore did a good job against the rush in limiting the Raiders to 111 yards.
“(Pass defense) has been a concern all year, but I’ve really seen our defensive backs mature. Our back seven are getting better,” Boice said.
“It’s improving tremendously … I told these kids it was going to take eight, nine or 10 weeks,” said assistant coach Shane Beattie, who oversees the Rebels defence.
Playing as the underdog will be an unusual spot for a Raiders team that had beaten the Rebels a stunning 25 straight times before Westshore’s Week 2 triumph. But it’s not a role that worries defensive lineman Nathan Warawa.
“It is good to know that people doubt you; it’s a little bit more motivation,” he said. “The person at the top of the hill isn’t always as motivated as the person climbing the hill.”
The winner of Saturday’s Island showdown (Oct. 15, 7 p.m.) will move on to face either the Langley Rams or the Okanagan Sun in the Cullen Cup. The Rebels are looking to reach the BCFC championship game for the first time since 2004.
Rebels offence dominates all-star squad
Five members of the vaunted Westshore Rebels offence received B.C. Football Conference all-star nods, as announced by the league on Tuesday.
Quarterback Ashton MacKinnon, running back Jamel Lyles and receiver Nathaniel Pinto received nominations at the skill positions, while Aarmin Purewal and Christian Krause were among the offensive lineman receiving recognition.
On Monday, defensive lineman Kent Hicks received the Rebels’ lone defensive all-star nod.
Lyles set the BCFC’s single-season rushing record with a dominant 2016 campaign that saw him pile up 1,604 yards on the ground to go with 15 touchdowns.
Victoria’s MacKinnon earned a selection despite only taking over full-time quarterbacking duties in the latter half of the season. The second-year Rebel passed for 1,218 yards and 10 touchdowns and added 458 yards with his legs, finding the end zone four times on the ground.
The 6’7″ Mount Douglas alum built a late season connection with the small but agile Pinto, who needed just seven games to land himself on the all-star team. The big play threat amassed 644 receiving yards and eight touchdowns while becoming MacKinnon’s favourite target.
Krause and Purewal represent two key cogs for a dominant Rebels rushing attack while helping Lyles set a record.
Hicks notched 5.5 sacks and forced two fumbles and was a regular disruptor for opposing offences.
The Langley Rams led all BCFC squads with seven all-stars. The Vancouver Island Raiders landed five players on the all-star team.
– with files from Greg Sakaki