Devils' day in the Sun
The South Delta Sun Devils' biggest fan may have been absent from the sidelines Saturday as the local varsity football team trounced the Mission Roadrunners 31-14 to claim their second provincial AA championship in five years, but the memory of Belinda Weitzel was in the hearts of every Sun Devil player on the field.
The Sun Devils players dedicated this season to memory of Weitzel, mother of lineman Rhys Weitzel, who passed away from cancer earlier this year.
"She was a huge supporter of the team for years," says running back David Mann.
The team had stickers made to honour her, which they wore on their helmets throughout the season.
"That made the guys play that much harder," says Mann. "We weren't just playing for each other, we were playing for her, in her memory.
"I think she would have been proud of us."
It would be hard not be.
The Sun Devils overcame all manner of adversity this season to finish with a perfect record, and even when things went wrong, some how everything managed to work out in their favour.
For much of the season, the Sun Devils struggled with injuries.
"We had seven or eight games where we were missing our best players," said head coach Ray Moon. "Seven to 10 injuries per game was not uncommon. We had three to five starters out most of the season."
In the end, the injuries may have been a blessing for the team.
"It really brought the players together, and got them playing as a team," says Moon.
The Sun Devils' bench made the most of their opportunities to play, something Moon says will benefit the team next year
"They really made the best of it."
As the season progressed, the perfect season itself became somewhat of a burden for the team to bear.
"That definitely put a target on our back," says Moon.
Throughout the adversity the Sun Devils faced, the team's seniors help lead by example.
It was an easy role to fill, says Mann. When you're that close for four and a half months at a time, you become more of a family than a team.
"We've all played together our whole lives," he says. "We're more than just teammates."
The Sun Devils were the first to get on the board Saturday at B.C. Place, as Jeremy Gordon-Carmichael was able to march the ball into the end zone on the team's third possession in the first quarter. A successful two-point convert put South Delta ahead 8-0.
Despite repeated forays into Roadrunners' red zone in the first half, the Sun Devils struggled to score and missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
"We had four or five drives stalled at the Mission [20-yard-line]," said Moon. "It was frustrating, but we knew we could get yards on them. It was just a matter of converting."
A successful field goal put the Sun Devils ahead by 11. However a Mission touchdown put the defending AA champions back within four points at the half.
While the Sun Devils defence was effective at shutting down Mission quarterback Kevin Wiens and running back Evan Horton in the first half, the Roadrunners' stars found their footing in the third quarter.
Wiens ran the ball 40 yards to give Mission their first lead of the game, before the Sun Devils answered back later in the quarter with a TD of their own.
After an unsuccessful convert attempt, South Delta held a narrow 17-14 lead going into the final quarter.
The Sun Devils changed up their defence from a four-man to a five-man front, and the effects were immediate.
"That's when we started to shut down their running game," said Moon. "That's when the tides began to turn."
With Mission pinned deep in their own end and electing to punt, Moon opted for speedy Will Kraynyk at nose tackle in place of six-foot-four Mitch MacLeod.
Kraynyk managed to block the punt, while Ryan Marquardt pounced on the ball in the end zone to put the Sun Devils up 23-14.
Things got worse for the Roadrunners after that. On the ensuing kick off return, Wiens fumbled the ball, only to have the Sun Devils recover.
A handful of plays later, Kyle Menzies found his way into the end zone on a 12-yard run. A successful two-point convert put the Sun Devils ahead 31-14, making it a three-score lead.
With the clock winding down and the Roadrunners desperate to score, the Sound Devils could smell blood in the water.
"We figured they'd have to air it out, so we dropped back to a four-man front, and switched our backs to a zone coverage," said Moon.
Sure enough, defensive back Denis Olivera picked up an errant pass for an interception to give the Sun Devils possession.
"From then on, we just settled into a slow and safe running game," said Moon.
Three plays - the blocked punt, the fumble recovery, and the interception - changed the outcome of the game, says Mann.
"You could see it on their faces they were beat," he says.
For a select few, like Mann, university football in the NCAA or CIS looms on the horizon, but for the majority of the team, Saturday's win marks the end of their football career.
"It was the biggest game of their lives," said Moon. "And I couldn't be more proud of them."