In Wyatt Smith’s four-year career with the Okanagan Sun, there has been one constant.
Each and every game he’s played against the Vancouver Island Raiders—regular season and playoffs—has carried with it intensity, high stakes and plenty of emotion.
The veteran defensive back expects all will be in abundance when the arch rivals square off Sunday afternoon at the Apple Bowl in a game that will decide first place in the B.C. Football Conference.
“This is really what I look forward to all season, playing the Raiders,” said Smith, 22. “Watching the film this week, it’s hard not to get excited about it. Playing these guys is awesome, I think it brings out the best in both teams. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it. This is what you play all year for and why the boys have worked so hard to get here.”
The Sun’s task on Sunday won’t be a simple one, but it couldn’t be more straightforward—a win by 14 points or more clinches top spot for Okanagan (8-1) for the second straight year.
Anything less and the Raiders (9-0) will claim first place in the BCFC for the fifth time in six seasons.
And, as always, along with the regular season title comes home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
It’s a challenge Sun quarterback Jeremy Mraovic expects his teammates will rise to.
“We have to play pretty much a perfect game, and I think we can do that,” said Mraovic, the Winnipeg native who has passed for 1,908 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. “We have very good athletes on all three sides of the ball, offense, defense and special teams, and we match up well against them. If everybody does their job, if we play a good, sound game, then there’s no reason we can’t come out of this with the points we need.”
What the Sun does have on its side this weekend is the 13th man. The BCFC club is expecting the largest crowd of the season—by far—to jam the stands at the Apple Bowl.
“With the importance of this game, I expect a phenomenal atmosphere and a packed house,” said Sun head coach Casey. “We expect our guys to feed off that and lay it all on the line. Our goal is plain and simple, to finish first.
“The) Raiders have been the best team the last four or five years, what they’ve done is unparalleled. To be the best you have to beat the best.
“From a fan standpoint,” added Casey, “you can’t ask for much more, you get to see 100 of the best junior football players in B.C. going toe-to-toe.”
A number of those top players reside on the Raiders’ offensive side of the ball, a unit that has racked up more than 50 points per game this season.
Led by quarterback Jordan Yantz (32 TD passes), running back Jordan Botel (1,102 yards) and receiver Andrew Smith (723 yards), it’s little secret what the Sun will have to do to have success against Vancouver Island on Sunday.
“We have to keep their offense off the field as much as possible,” said Wyatt Smith. “They’re going to get their big plays, and we’re going to get our big plays, but if we can play a three-dimensional game, then we can have some control over that.
“The (Raiders) can strike at any second, so we have to be ready on every play. Our coaches have been busting their butts to get us prepared and we feel like we will be.”
Just how successful the Sun will be at limiting the V.I. offense’s production will also hinge on the play of the Sun’s offense and its ability to maintain possession of the ball.
Unlike their previous meeting with the Raiders—a 33-20 loss Aug. 27 in Nanaimo—Mraovic said the Sun now possesses an effective running game, led by Armand Bokitch’s 566 yards.
“We didn’t have a running game (34 yards) when we played them last time,” said Mraovic.
“But with (Jay) Christensen running the the offense, we have a more balanced attack now. Running the football takes times off the clock, keeps your defense off the field, and keeps their offense’s hands off the ball. We can mix up the run and the pass and that adds a lot to an offense.”
Kick off Sunday at the Apple Bowl is 1 p.m.