After two wins to start 2016 over lower-echelon opponents, the Okanagan Sun was anxious to find out where the club really stood in the broader picture of the B.C. Football Conference.
Ben Macauley’s Sun uncovered at least part of the answer with a solid, workmanlike 27-21 win over the Westshore Rebels Saturday night at the Apple Bowl.
The unbeaten Sun (3-0) limited the damage by the country’s leading rusher, Jamel Lyles, in handing the upstart Rebels (2-1) their first loss of 2016.
“I thought we played a good aggressive game, we did the fundamentals well just like we challenged the guys to do,” said Macauley, the Sun’s rookie head coach. “We blocked, tackled and executed just the way we conceived.
“We didn’t need to tell the guys how important this game was,” he added. “They played with emotion and effort and that was good to see.”
With a roster bolstered by former CIS players, the Rebels came into Kelowna on the heels of a pair of convincing victories over the Raiders and Kamloops.
Lyles, the BCFC’s leading rusher who played last season at the University of Manitoba, was pretty much held in check in the first half, before finishing the night with 121 yards and a touchdown.
“We knew we were going to have our hands full,” said Macauley. “Tackling and being fundamentally sound were key, and when our guys did that, it frustrated Lyles and the Rebels and we were able to more or less control the game.”
With first place on the line, linebacker Layne Hull said the Sun was ready to play, plain and simple.
“With came out flying in practise this week, that’s where it all starts,” said Hull, 22. “The coaches studied the film and had us ready to go.
“We rallied to the ball and really put a lid on (Lyles), he doesn’t like contact so we did a good job on that. It was a real confidence booster for us.”
The Sun jumped on the Rebels early, scoring on their first possession, then watched Raquille Cespedes provide the turning point of the night.
Early in the second quarter, the 21-year-old Kelowna product grabbed a missed field goal and raced 120 yards for a major score and a 17-0 Sun lead.
The Rebels fought back and made the game interesting in the final minutes but never fully recovered from the blow by Cespedes.
“It was one of those things where we knew in a game like this, we’d have to make some plays on special teams,” Macauley said. “It was a great individual effort, Raquille is a fast guy and makes a lot of good moves. He’s a really good athlete who made a great play for us.”
Macauley said both the Sun’s offensive and defensive lines provided yeoman’s work throughout the night, with CFL draft pick Quinn Horton dominating on both sides of the ball.
“Quinn was unblockable playing defense and was able to push guys around all night on offence. Jonas Gering and Lucas Machado were excellent on the D-line, too.”
Foster Martens started at quarterback for the Sun and had a productive night, completing 13 of 18 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 59 yards.
Brendan Hansen paced the Sun’s running game with 99 yards on 18 carries, and added five receptions for 57 yards, including a touchdown from Martens.
With the Vancouver Island Raiders (2-1) up next for the Sun, Macauley likes where his team is at three weeks into the season, but assures improvements can still be made.
“We still have things to work on and things we’d like to do better,” he said. “We’re continuing to get better, we have a good base to work from, now it’s a matter of polishing things up.
“Jerome (Erdman) is a good coach, a very intelligent guy,” Macauley said of the Raiders’ head man. “The (Raiders) play with a lot of heart and finish and don’t give up. We expect them to give us their best.”
The Sun and Raiders will meet Saturday night at the Apple Bowl. Kick off is 7 p.m.