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Hyacks headed deep in the heart of Texas
While most New Westminster residents seek relief from midday heat Farhan Lalji secretly says, "Bring it on! The hotter the better!"
The Hyacks football coach wants it that way because he's about to plop his troops into a cauldron that will be scorching hot in more ways than one.
He's taking them to Texas next week. They're going to play one of the top small school programs in a state that is feverishly mad, some might say deranged, in its football obsession.
Grandview, Texas is Friday Night Lights Lite. The entire Grandview school district has 1,100 students. NWSS has twice that all on its own. While it might not quite match Permian High in Odessa, Texas—the town that inspired the Friday Night Lights book, movie and television show—Grandview is passionate about pigskin. The stadium holds 1,200 and it's usually full of rabid fans on game nights even though the population of the town southwest of Dallas is about 3,300.
It's the type of atmosphere Lalji is anxious for his troops to experience. Three years ago, he took the Hyacks to Citrus Valley, Calif. The plan for 2017 is to fly them to Florida. When that happens they'll have covered the three states where football reigns supreme more than anywhere else in the U.S.
"We really wanted to get to some good football hotbeds. As much as New West has the best atmosphere and setting (Mercer Stadium) and support for football in B.C., there it's a whole other level," said Lalji.
It took him a while to hook up with Grandview. He'd posted notices on football websites until Zebras head coach Casey Walraven eventually responded. When he did it didn't take long to make the arrangements.
Walraven was looking for a team to play opening week. It seems they're so good at the level they play at—there are six levels encompassing 1,400 teams in Texas—they were having trouble lining up exhibition games.
"I would suggest it's the best team we're going to face all year. [But] I don't believe we've bitten off more than we can chew," said Lalji.
The game will feature two heavily recruited university prospects. The Hyacks boast lineman Harper Sherman who recently committed to attending the University of Arizona on a football scholarship next year. The Zebras are led by six-foot-five Grade 11 quarterback Zach Smith who has accepted an offer from Baylor University starting in 2016.
For Smith and the Zebras, though, the pressure is on to perform next Friday (Aug. 29) and live up to the Friday Night Lights' legendary reputation.
"I've talked to our guys about how this is not just Grandview and another team," Walraven told the Cleburn Times Review last month. "This is U.S.A. and Canada. And, more importantly, Texas, and upholding that name of Texas high school football and make sure that everyone knows there's a lot of pride in it and why that is."
The Hyacks are anxious to board their plane and fly off to football country Monday.
"We're pumped. We can't wait," said receiver Matt Seymour, one of the top collegiate prospects in Canada. "I instantly thought about Friday Night Lights and the experiences of playing down there and how fun it would be to beat them when we do. They back up their football team a lot, they have a passion for it. It will be a fun experience for the whole team."
The New Westminster Hyacks football team prepares for an exhibition trip to Texas by working out outdoors to get used to the heat and humidity. Mario Bartel/NewsLeader
To prepare, the Hyacks have been conducting midday strength and agility workouts this month. Every day they haul 35-45 pound weights and medicine balls out of the clubhouse to throw around on the hot Mercer Stadium turf. They've been working out under the sun because even the hottest day here might not be as warm as it will be next Friday evening in Grandview. Lalji's been keeping an eye on the thermometer down there. For instance last Friday at 5 p.m. Texas time the temperature was 100F (38C). That's not unusual down there at this time of year.
"The heat's a real punch in the face," said Lalji.
So it was no wonder he was a tad ticked off during the first workout under Vancouver's version of a hot sun when a breeze came along. "I wanted no part of that."
Eventually the heat came. But it also went away last week.
Even the coach's son helps prepare the New Westminster Hyacks football team for an exhibition trip to Texas as Lukas Lalji uses a squirt gun to simulate humidity on receiver Matt Seymour.
The team will practice in the evening next week while staying in the Fort Worth-Arlington area near the huge 212-acre Six Flags Over Texas theme park. Among the other activities they've got planned is a trip to a big dude ranch outside of Grandview and a trip to Dealey Plaza in Dallas where President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. They'll wind up their Texas expedition next Saturday by taking in a big college game between defending national champion Florida State Seminoles and Oklahoma State Cowboys at the 100,000-seat Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
"It's a packed week of activity," said Lalji.
A parent of a former Hyack, who used to be a travel agent, worked some Internet magic to keep the cost for the entire trip down to $1,300 per player. For the parents who couldn't afford that, the team found ways to help them raise funds. There will be 60 players, and 10 coaches and support staff making the trip.
"They're just over the moon for those kids," said Lalji of the parents and staff. "That's all a part of what our program is about—building life experiences and creating motivation."
That's something Matt Seymour has been soaking up since he joined the Hyacks in Grade 9. Starting his senior season in Texas style will make it even more special for him.
"I just love the brotherhood. It (football) brought us all together. Those guys are going to be like family the rest of my life," said Seymour. To get to spend a week together, it's going to make that bond last forever, memories that we'll never forget."