The dust has settled on the Westshore Rebels’ heart-pounding semifinal triumph over the Vancouver Island Raiders and the club is now preparing to host the Cullen Cup for the first time in team history.
The Okanagan Sun will be the Rebels’ opponents this Saturday at Westhills Stadium (Oct. 29, 4 p.m. kickoff) in Langford. The defending B.C. Football Conference champions downed the Langley Rams in overtime on Oct. 23 to punch their ticket to a third straight title game.
Rebels head coach J.C. Boice was pleased with how his team handled adversity down the stretch against the Raiders, with Westshore rallying for the game winning touchdown drive following a late onside kick recovery by the visiting Raiders.
“I’m incredibly proud of our kids … their commitment to each other and their resilience for the game,” he said.
Still, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to the team’s passing game and special teams, Boice added.
“We have to have improved special teams and our staff is very hard at work on that,” he said of a unit that allowed the Raiders to recover the onside kick and also block a pair of kicks.
“Our tackling has to improve and our quarterback play has to improve. (Ashton) Mackinnon struggled in the first half, but I was very pleased with the way he finished the fourth quarter,” Boice said.
Mackinnon was instrumental in orchestrating the Rebels’ game-winning score and produced a pair of touchdowns and 79 rushing yards as a major factor on the ground, but found little success through the air prior to the game’s final drive – he passed for 105 yards and threw a pair of interceptions in poor weather conditions. That’ll need to change if the Rebels are to move past the Sun and on to the Canadian Bowl.
A big part of the Sun’s regular season success stemmed from the team’s 17 interceptions across 10 games, and protecting the football will be a focus for the Rebels heading into Saturday’s showdown.
Mackinnon threw for three interceptions the last time these two teams met, a 29-23 Westshore win on Sept. 10.
Even with an emphasis on improving the passing game, the Rebels’ offence still runs through the star-studded backfield of Jamel Lyles and Trey Campbell.
The Sun surrendered just 89.8 rushing yards per game to opponents in the regular season, but Lyles gashed them for 121 yards on 13 carries earlier this season in Kelowna, and the Rebels piled up 175 yards on the ground in their Sept. 10 win.
Though Lyles has the eye-popping numbers, the Sun recognize he won’t be the only weapon they’ll have to stop if they are to pull out a win.
“They’re good in other places on offense, they’re talented with the pass, and their quarterback (Ashton) McKinnon runs the ball well,” said Okanagan defensive coordinator Nathan Mollard. “Obviously we want to try and take away what they do best with Lyles, but their second best is pretty good, too.”
Defensively, the Rebels should be a confident group following a stellar showing against the Raiders, especially late in the fourth quarter when a Vancouver Island touchdown may have put the game out of reach.
Sun quarterback Foster Martens left the semifinal with an apparent head injury and his status for Saturday’s matchup was unknown as of Wednesday.
Whoever is under centre, be it Martens or backup Keith Zyla, they won’t have an easy task against a stout Rebels’ front, led by pass rushing linemen Byron Mackinnon and Kent Hicks, and an improving secondary.
The Sun suffered through some late-season doldrums that started with the loss to Westshore, continued with an inter-conference thumping at the hands of the Saskatoon Hilltops, and continued with a defeat against the Raiders.
Okanagan righted their listing ship with back-to-back wins over the Rams and Boice and the Rebels are prepared for a difficult test against a club that remains proud of its competitive pedigree.
“They’re a good football team. They’d been in a bit of a slump, but they played really good football against Langley,” Boice said.
“They’re very good on defence, they’re very good at running the ball and they’ve got some good (receivers) on the perimeter.”
One of their most imposing weapons is wideout Rashaun Simonise, a former CIS standout with the Calgary Dinos who was a member of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals until becoming a late training camp casualty in early September.
“We’ve got some challenges ahead of us,” Boice said.
The winner of Saturday’s matchup will host the representative of the Prairie Football Conference in this year’s Canadian Bowl national championship game.
The game will take place at Westhills Stadium should the Rebels move past the Sun.
For ticket information or other details about this Saturday’s game visit westshorerebels.ca