NANAIMO — The Vancouver Island Raiders have something to prove as they kickoff the Canadian Junior Football League season in Langley.
Two of the Raiders four losses in the 2016 regular season came at the hands of the Rams. On top of that, many are projecting Langley to challenge for top spot in the B.C. conference this year.
New Raiders head coach Doug Hocking said he couldn't have picked a better way to open the campaign on Saturday, July 29.
"Everybody in the world is telling us how good they are but you know what, we're not listening. That's the benefit of being on the island, we keep things to ourselves...nobody knows anything about us."
Hocking said while there's no doubt Langley is a strong football team which poses a stiff test, he's excited about the potential shown by his own group during training camp.
"The opportunity is there on Saturday to go show them and the rest of the BCFC what our football team is all about," Hocking told NanaimoNewsNOW, adding an "attitude of professionalism" has surrounded his team heading in to week one.
However, pre-season preparations have not been without adversity for the three-time national champions.
During a conditioning session on July 16, veteran quarterback Jamie Ybarra, a former rookie of the year, had difficulty breathing and was sent to the hospital. Instead of what Hocking hoped was a minor rib injury, doctors discovered a blood clot in the 22-year-old's lung.
Ybarra is considered out of the lineup indefinitely and any potential return to the field will be approached with extreme caution, Hocking said.
"He's a leader, he was performing at a high level on the football field," he said. "Immediately we've embraced all his experience, we're going to put him to work. He's over there working with Jake (Laberge) every day in practice."
Laberge, a 19-year-old in his second year out of Terry Fox Secondary, put together an impressive rookie campaign. He was third in the conference in passing, rushed for more than 300 yards and showed composure beyond his years in a tense playoff loss in Westshore.
His mindset has shifted from competing with a standout veteran for playing time to becoming the undisputed leader of the Raiders offense.
"I had to take more of a leadership role because Jamie is a big vocal leader...I usually lead with my play so that's something I need to work on," Laberge said.
The Raiders offense will be deployed by new coordinator Colin Pippy. Hocking is looking to running back Rhett Williams for a breakout year. At receiver, Brycen Mayoh looks to build on a 400 yard, one touchdown season.
Under the watchful eye of new coordinator Karim Maher, the black and red's defense is bolstered by the return of defensive end Quinton Bowles, who returns from a year of university football. He registered three tackles for loss and two sacks with the Manitoba Bisons.
Linebacker Dexter Shea had more tackles than any player in B.C. in 2016 and came in at number 18 on the CJFL's recently-released list of its top 50 players. In the secondary, Jeremie Cheng and Josh Paisley, who combined for 9 interceptions last season, will both return. Paisley also led the conference in defensive points in 2016.
Hocking also pointed out hulking defensive end Brody Taylor. "He's had an outstanding training camp and he's accepted coaching. There's a kid that's ready to break out."
Saturday's game at Langley's McLeod Athletic Park gets going at 4 p.m. You can watch the game live here. The Raiders host Westshore Aug. 5 at 2 p.m. for their home opener at Caledonia Park.
On Twitter: @domabassi
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