The chase is on.
For the first time in a long time, the V.I. Raiders aren’t defending a championship, but just like every year, they’re chasing one.
Nanaimo’s Canadian Junior Football League club begins its regular season this Saturday (July 27) in Victoria against the Westshore Rebels.
“There’s that anticipation,” said Matthew (Snoop) Blokker, the team’s coach. “You’re obviously hoping to do well but there’s also the unknown.”
The Raiders have had two weeks of practice to make roster decisions and try to get ready. But only on game day will they really, truly find out what kind of team they’ve got.
“It’s the first time you get a real chance to make plays for your teammates…” Blokker said. “It’s the first opportunity that we have a real chance to look each other eye to eye and man to man and see who’s willing to do this for the right reasons.”
Here’s a look at the V.I. Raiders who will take the field for the season opener:
It’s a bit of a new era on offence, but there are some exciting possibilities. This year’s group is expected to have real balance.
“I think our pass game will evolve from our run game…” Blokker said. “But saying that, we feel very confident that we can become a very good passing team.”
Jahmari Bennett takes over as starting quarterback. The 22-year-old left-hander comes to the Raiders from St. Francis Xavier University. He will be backed up by Jamie Ybarra and Jaeden Marwick.
Taylor Flavel is starting tailback, but he will share carries with Andrew Deleon and fullback Ashton Galloway.
The receiving corps will be led by veteran Whitman Tomusiak, coming off of B.C. Lions training camp, and another vet, Dustin Rodriguez. Two other returnees, Alex Kutra and Dylan Schrot, move into the top four and Arthur Fabbro and tight end Paul Childs will also get opportunities to make catches.
The offensive line is led again this year by Tyler Oldendorf. Veteran centre Terrek Bryant and fellow vet Sawyer Barth return to the unit and two newcomers, Jeremy Williams and Tyler Winchester, won jobs with standout efforts at camp.
Daryl Rodgers is offensive coordinator.
The D will be directed by Doug Hocking, who returns as defensive coordinator after a year coaching at UBC.
“I think we’re going to play really fast and play really physical,” said Blokker of the defence.
The defensive line will now get Jordan Kuziek full time after he played mostly offensive line in his rookie season. He’ll line up at D tackle along with fellow returnee Nathan Warawa, and veteran Ash Gayat will play on one end. The other end will see Tristian Koronkiewicz (Jordan Yantz’s brother) and Quinton Bowles share playing time.
One of the leaders of the linebacking corps this year will be 22-year-old Cole Samson, who is from Nanaimo but has been playing at the University of Saskatchewan. Other starters are veteran Dylan Chapdelaine and newcomer Nigel Henry from the University of Guelph.
The defensive backfield will be anchored by veteran safety Cole Bishop. Veteran Jaxxen Wylie and newcomer Fabian Ross are the corners. Lining up inside will be vet Ariel Fabbro and Andrew Rowe, a former Raiders linebacker who most recently played at Acadia University.
The V.I. Raiders’ new kicker to start the season will be newcomer Ryan Jones, and with Samson an accomplished kicker, there is no concern about depth at the position.
The Raiders plan to use Rodriguez as their primary punt returner to start the year and rookies Nathan Mayers and Michael Ritchott will also have chances to run back punts. There are a few different guys who might return kickoffs, including Flavel, Deleon, Rodriguez and Ritchott.
Adding to the excitement of Week 1 is the opposition on the field. The V.I. Raiders and the Westshore Rebels have never gotten along very well since the Victoria program split into two Island teams back in 2005. The fact that the Raiders have never lost to the Rebels makes every game meaningful, as that perfect record is always on the line.
And of course, Week 1 signals the start of the chase. Flavel pointed out that the Raiders ended 2012 with a loss, and they’ve been waiting a long time to move on.
“I think we’re going to be ready to play and I think we’re going to come out strong,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are hungry to get on the field.”
They play the Westshore Rebels on Saturday (July 27) at 7 p.m. at Bear Mountain Stadium in Victoria. The home opener for Nanaimo will be Aug. 10 when the Langley Rams visit Caledonia Park. Season tickets for the V.I. Raiders’ five home games cost $50. For more information, visit www.viraiders.ca.