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High school football preview: Blue-chip rushers Irons, Cummings pushing each other to great heights
Pondering his goals for the 2013 high school football season, Robert Bateman Timberwolves running back Ben Cummings places a target squarely on the back of his good buddy Maleek Irons.
"I hope to lead the province in rushing yards," Cummings says as he rattles off a laundry list of aspirations, which includes winning a provincial AA title with the T-Wolves and earning an NCAA scholarship.
It's not lost on Cummings that Irons, his W.J. Mouat Hawks counterpart, is coming off the most prolific rushing season in B.C. high school football history. As a Grade 11, Irons racked up mind-bending numbers – a record 3,304 rush yards and 44 touchdowns in 12 games.
But this Cummings-Irons relationship is fueled by competition, and it’s been that way since they first got acquainted back in their peewee football days – Cummings playing for the Abbotsford Falcons and Irons for the Chilliwack Giants.
What began as a rivalry between two of B.C.'s best running backs in their age group morphed into grudging admiration and then friendship, to the point where this past summer, the two were training partners as they prepped for the 2013 season.
"It's great," says Irons, "because we push each other to do better than we can do on our own. It's a friendly competition."
Irons and Cummings won't have to wait long to measure themselves against one another in a game situation – the T-Wolves head across town to face the Hawks this Friday (7 p.m. kickoff, Mouat Field) as the high school season gets going in earnest.
"I'm always impressed with Abbotsford – how many great football players we develop in this city at all the schools," said Rick MacDonald, who co-ordinates the Bateman senior and junior football programs.
"(The running back match-up) is interesting, because they're two very different backs. Maleek's a much bigger bruiser, while Benny's a little shiftier."
Both Irons and Cummings have their sights set on reeling in scholarships from NCAA teams. Irons has already drawn full-ride offers from the Ohio University Bobcats and the Portland State Vikings, but he's holding out for an offer from a Pac-12 program.
"He's got a great combination of power and speed . . . and he finishes off his runs as well as anyone we've seen," Hawks coach Denis Kelly said of Irons. "He's got a lot of power at the end of the runs, and a lot of colleges have mentioned that.
"It's nothing to do with any coaching – it's just a matter of pointing him in the right direction, and he takes care of the rest."
Cummings (pictured right) is coming off a stellar season in his own right – despite missing three games with a separated shoulder, he finished second in rush yards among AA backs, racking up 1,354 yards and 15 TDs on just 108 carries. That works out to an eye-popping 12.5 yards per carry.
He attended football camps at Oregon State, Nevada, Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth and Holy Cross this summer, and it's no accident that so many Ivy League schools were on his itinerary. Cummings works as hard in the classroom as he does on the gridiron, carrying a 90 per cent academic average.
Asked what makes Cummings such a special talent, T-Wolves senior head coach Alfred Brathwaite doesn't skimp on the superlatives.
"Heart, drive, enthusiasm, ambition – and the list could go on," he said. "Anything it takes to be good, he's doing. Everything he does, he goes 110 per cent. There's no holding him back – he doesn't believe in half speed."
Both Mouat and Bateman boast plenty of talent beyond the running back position.
The Hawks, ranked No. 4 in AAA to open the season, put four players on the preliminary roster for the B.C. U18 team which will participate in the Football University International Games in San Antonio in January – Irons, Levi Hua (guard/defensive tackle), Jake Firlotte (receiver/defensive back) and Clovis Lumeka (fullback/linebacker). New starting quarterback Hunter Struthers has impressed Kelly in practice.
As for the T-Wolves, QB Tanner Friesen, receiver Daniel Mills and Grade 11 running back Austen Zacher give Brathwaite the skill-position ingredients for an explosive offence.
PANTHERS THRILLED ABOUT NEW HOME FIELD
The high school football season actually had a soft launch last weekend, as Mouat (beating Edmonton's Salisbury Composite 37-25 in Federal Way, Wash.) and the Rick Hansen Hurricanes (blowing out Windsor Secondary 33-6 in North Vancouver) were among a handful of teams which played exhibition games.
The schedule truly revs up this week, and the Mouat-Bateman tilt is just one of a tantalizing trio of local match-ups.
Over at Abbotsford Senior, the Panthers are set to christen their new all-weather artificial turf field with a Friday game vs. the Holy Cross Crusaders of Vancouver (7 p.m. kickoff).
For a program which in recent years has had to host its home games across town at Rotary Stadium, having a state-of-the-art field on campus is a thrill.
"It's a beautiful facility – it's one of the nicest ones I've seen," head coach Jay Fujimura said of the new facility (pictured right, under construction), which will be known as Panther Field.
"It's really exciting for the players, myself and the program."
This year's edition of the Panthers is predominantly comprised of Grade 11s, but it's worth noting that those youngsters took the Abby Senior Grade 10 team to the AA provincial final last year.
QB Jordan Fox – a football newcomer plucked from the basketball team – along with running back Grayson Marquardt and linemen Jason Mann and Jordan Goheen will be among the team's leaders.
"I think we can run with most teams in the league, but being young, it's going to come down to the second half of games – how well they've practiced, how well they've stuck to the game plan and executed the roles we want them to," Fujimura said.
HURRICANES RANKED NO. 4 IN AA
The Hansen Hurricanes, meanwhile, boast all sorts of potential, as evidenced by their No. 4 AA preseason ranking.
They're wasting little time testing their mettle – they open Saturday at home (1:30 p.m. kickoff) vs. the South Delta Sun Devils, the defending B.C. AA champs and the No. 1-ranked team once again this fall.
Head coach Paul Gill explained that his decision to put together a tough schedule is an effort to avoid what befell the Hurricanes last year, when two fledgling teams on their non-conference slate had to forfeit games due to a lack of players.
"We wanted to have a solid schedule where we didn't run into those types of problems," he said. "Our guys are pretty excited to play South Delta, having lost to them in the provincial quarter-finals last year."
Leading the way for Hansen will be Grade 12 twin brothers Alex and Brandon Ho. Alex (pictured left) is going into his third year as the team's starting QB, while Brandon lines up at multiple skill positions on offence. Both players also start on the defensive side as linebackers.
Gill also expects big things from receiver Zach Toews and linemen Shaiheem Charles-Brown and Harry Kaler.
"I think we have the potential to win a provincial championship," Gill said. "It's a lot of hard work, and sometimes things have to bounce your way, but I would be disappointed if we weren't on the dance floor at the end. And I think more importantly, the kids would be disappointed. They've worked hard."