AS the high school football landscape continues to change on the North Shore, a single, somewhat unlikely team is left alone in the province's top league.
Two years ago the West Vancouver Highlanders folded midway through the season due to a lack of numbers. Last year they returned with a respectable showing - missing a playoff spot on the final play of the season - and now, following Carson Graham's move to the AA ranks, they are the sole North Shore team left at the AAA level.
Head coach Shawn Anderson, who has helped rebuild the program after taking over the job just weeks before the start of the fateful folding season, said he's more interested in the commitment his players have shown than the number of letters in front of the name of their league.
"(With) what we went through two years ago, to be honest, I'm glad we still have a program, let alone whether we play in AAA or AA," he said. "We were in a really tough situation and I think it's a testament to our players' resilience and all the coaches staying with it and moving in the right direction."
While the team is still smaller - in both player size and number - than most of the other teams in the AAA league, Anderson said they have a committed, talented core of players that should make them competitive in most games.
"The health of the program is good, we have some very good players, but AAA football is tough," he said. "We play very, very tough teams that have very good coaches and established programs while we're still in the process of trying to build that."
They're off to a good start. The Highlanders opened the season with a pair of closely fought wins over talented AA teams Seaquam and Ballenas.
In both games West Van fell behind early but rallied late to collect last-minute victories. Anderson was both concerned and encouraged by that trend.
"In those games we didn't do what we needed to do to start the games off well," he said. "We were behind in both games quickly and needed to come back. But we have some players that made some big plays for us and our defence does what it can to hold us in. We're not very big so I think it's resilience from our team to kind of stay with it, which is great, it's what I wanted to see. Now we just need to get rid of the slow starts and start fast and keep up the same second half play."
The margin for error will get a lot slimmer now with AAA play set to begin this week. On Sept. 21, after North Shore News press deadline, the Highlanders hosted the perennial powerhouse team from Terry Fox secondary. Next Friday they'll open regular season play by hosting the W.J. Mouat Hawks, currently ranked No. 2 in the province for AAA. The Hawks are led by running back Maleek Irons who racked up an incredible 773 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in the team's first three games.
"He's on pace to smash B.C. high school prep football rushing records," said Anderson. "Whether he can keep that up, I'm not sure. I'm hoping against us he doesn't."
The player with the best shot at shutting him down for the Highlanders will likely be defensive captain James Oswald who has been racking up tackles and sacks this season.
"He's been unreal," said Anderson. "He's been single-handedly making tackles everywhere. He really is a solid football player."
On offence the Highlanders lean on the quarterback-wide receiver duo of Johnny Franklin and Blake Whiteley. Franklin can beat teams in a lot of ways, said Anderson.
"He's not a true quarterback in the sense of the word, he's just a really good athlete. He's one of those guys who can make plays out of what seems to be nothing. He did that and really won the Ballenas game for us with a punt return. I haven't seen a run like that in my short time as a coach in high school football."
Franklin's top target is Whiteley, a talented playmaker listed at six-foot-five and 225 pounds.
"He's been our big-play wide receiver so far," said Anderson, adding that the big wideout is getting some interest from Div. 1 NCAA schools.
Keeping the playmakers safe is an offensive line that needs to maximize their limited assets. "Our offence line, even though they're super small . . . they understand what they need to do and they hold on for dear life at times and try to give our offence enough time," said Anderson.
Knowing the team's strengths and limitations, Anderson said he and the players have set the goal of qualifying for the playoffs, a feat the Highlanders haven't accomplished since 2008. To get there they'd likely need to win at least two of their five regular season games.
"Our players decided to not necessarily worry about what teams they need to beat or how exactly they were going to do it, they just wanted to be competitive in every game," said Anderson. "That really is our team goal - to try to be competitive in every game and have teams have to prepare for us and give them a run for their money. If we're able to do that hopefully we can sneak out a couple of wins and get into the playoffs."
They almost accomplished that goal last season, missing out when New West stopped them with a goal-line stand on the final play of the game.
"We had a chance to win, we put ourselves in a position to win, we just couldn't get ourselves into the end zone."
The battle begins again next Friday when the Highlanders host the Hawks. Kickoff is at 3: 45 p.m. at West Vancouver secondary.