On most occasions over the last half dozen years, the Okanagan Sun have found themselves in an underdog role against the Vancouver Island Raiders.
Based on the first meeting of the 2013 season between the clubs last month, Saturday’s matchup in Nanaimo takes on a markedly different tone.
The Sun, who shut down V.I. 17-3 on Aug. 3 in Kelowna, are unbeaten in five games this season, while the re-tooling Raiders are 3-2.
Still, while the Sun may be favoured on paper, veteran safety Jack Rush expects another typical knock-down, drag-’em-out affair this weekend between the two intense junior football rivals.
“Getting ready for the Raiders, it always feels a little different, it’s intense and you know it’s going to be a battle,” said Rush, 21, the BCFC leader in overall defensive statistics. “We don’t like to lose to them and I know the same goes for them. Nanaimo is a tough place to play. Everybody is hyped and ready to play this game.”
A perennial powerhouse, the Raiders are in a mild rebuilding mode this summer, looking for ways to compensate for the loss several veterans, including all-star and record-setting quarterback Jordan Yantz.
And while V.I. coach Matt Blokker says his club has made significant strides since the first encounter between the clubs, the Sun of 2013 is as diverse and talented a ball club as he’s seen come out of Kelowna in years.
“The Sun is full of confidence right now and that’s one thing that can be pretty tough to break,” said Blokker. “We have to improve our consistency from last time or we won’t be in the ball game. We feel we’re a better team, but they look really good all-round, too.
“They have one of the better defences we’ve seen in a long time, I don’t think they get the credit they deserve,” he added, “and they’re well-coached and well disciplined.”
Unlike many past games on the Island where the Sun would travel and play the same day, the club will leave a day early and stay overnight Friday in Nanaimo.
With that in mind, Rush says bus legs and fatigue won’t be a factor.
“It’s nice when you don’t have to worry about the travelling part of the game,” said Rush, who has 19 tackles and three interceptions this season. “Staying over, you get up well-rested and you’re ready to play. I think that’s going to be huge for us in this one.”
If the Sun can leave the Island with a victory, it would be another big step towards locking up top spot in the BCFC and home field advantage throughout the post-season.
Even if Okanagan doesn’t recover its overturned win against Chilliwack, the Sun could still finish 9-1, good enough for a BCFC title. Still, with the Raiders yet to come and two games each against Kamloops and Chilliwack remaining, Rush insists his teammates aren’t looking too far ahead.
“We’re taking it week by week, nothing more than that,” Rush said. “This is a big game for us, so this is all we’re looking at right now. Having said that, it would be great to be first and home for all the playoffs and that’s the goal. But we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Meanwhile, the Sun (4-1) is still awaiting word on its appeal with the BCFC regarding the club’s forfeited win against Chilliwack on July 27 due to an ineligible player.
The two sides will meet with an arbitrator on Sept. 10 to discuss the situation.
According to Sun GM Jay Christensen, the time frame for a final decision is unknown.
The Sun’s next home action is Sunday, Sept. 29 vs the Chilliwack Huskers.