Handsworth football invited all of their former head coaches back to celebrate the school's 50th anniversary Saturday but it was the West Vancouver Highlanders who ended up crashing the party while celebrating a happy return of their own.
The Highlanders knocked off the Royals 12-0 at Handsworth in the opening game of the season for both teams, scoring an important win for the program after the West Van senior team folded last season due to insufficient numbers. As the final whistle blew the Highlanders celebrated the team's first win since 2008.
"It's been two years of zeros and last year we had to fold," said West Van head coach Shawn Anderson after the game as his excited players enjoyed their return to the win column and to the sport. "It's great. It's nice for us because the school needed this, football needed this."
West Van struggled with low turnouts all year in 2010 before a 57-0 loss to Carson Graham knocked them out for good - the Highlanders finished the game with only 12 healthy players and the program shut down for the season. But players came out for spring camps and when September rolled around West Van was back in the football business.
"The guys really believe it, they believe that we're on the right track and they've done the work to keep going," said Anderson. "We went down to rock bottom - we're in phase 1 rebuilding. . . . Building means we're going to start winning games and this is the first step today."
West Van opened the scoring late in the second quarter when big Blake Whitely took a short pass from quarterback Davis Wong and made a couple of nice moves to find the end zone. Running back James Oswald rounded out the scoring with a 19-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter.
On defence the Highlanders pitched a shutout, thanks in part to a pair of interceptions from Jake Pinnock as well as a monster game up front from linebacker Graeme Tod-Tims, who terrorized the Royals all day, picking up 10 tackles.
"Physically he's a great player, he's an emotional player - sometimes he can be a bit too emotional," said Anderson. "But today we decided we were going to bring Graeme - we knew they had a Grade 10 quarterback, we wanted to put pressure on him and make him make decisions. He's our biggest, fastest, strongest guy on defence. He's the guy to cause havoc and that was our game plan."
The quarterback Tod-Tims was chasing was Michael Lemoine, a Grade 10 player chosen as the team's starter by Handsworth head coach Jay Prepchuk. He may be young, but he's not the reason that Handsworth failed to put any points on the board, said Prepchuk.
"I was happy with the way we were moving the ball," said Prepchuk. The Royals put together several long drives but could not finish them off by getting into the endzone.
"In between the 20s we were fine but we just kind of bogged down inside the 20-yard line," he said, adding that he's excited about the prospect of potentially having Lemoine - quarterback for Handsworth's championship-winning Grade 8 team two years ago - at the helm for three season.
"He's progressing nicely, a very mature kid and he's going to have a great career as he works through his years at Handsworth," Prepchuk said. "He knows the offence, he knows the game of football, he loves the game and we're set to have a really good season with him this year. We're not going to make an excuse of we've got a Grade 10 quarterback. . . . We've got very high expectations for these guys and we feel that if we keep working hard we're going to be right there at the end."
At halftime of the game Prepchuk recognized the five head coaches - Graham Leask, Jack Tasaka, Dave Pearce, Michel Leveille and Joe Bell - who preceded him at Handsworth. All except Leask were present for the game - his assistant coach Joe Miller stood in for him - as were several other former Handsworth coaches and players from the different eras.
"I look back at those past coaches and those coaches helped shape my life and helped motivate me to give me the passion," said Prepchuk, who led the Royals to a provincial title as a quarterback before jumping into coaching. "They showed so much passion in the game and they worked so hard. . . . I'm happy to carry the torch but very honoured and very privileged."
Pearce, who retired as assistant superintendent of the North Vancouver School District in January, vividly recalls the championship final in 1979 when his Royals beat Kamloops to win the provincial title.
"We were leading 8-6 at halftime and we set up a - this is one play I really remember - we set up a reverse kickoff return. . . . It went 90 yards for a touchdown to start the second half."
Handsworth opened in 1961 and began its senior football program in 1968. Since then only six men, including Prepchuk, have been in charge. That's pretty impressive continuity, said Pearce.
"You look around there's only a couple of programs that could say the same thing," he said. "Over the years it's been a struggle at times to get kids out to play football generally and I think the coaches that they've had here over the past 15-20 years have done a terrific job of getting a number of kids out and keeping the program vibrant."
The scene playing out on the field behind Handsworth secondary on Saturday looked very similar to game days back when he was coaching, said Pearce, with only a couple of small differences.
"The field is in much better shape," he said with a laugh. "It used to be a mud bowl when we played here, and they didn't have a score clock back then."
West Van's coach Anderson, himself a former Royal who also led Handsworth to a provincial title as a quarterback, took part in the halftime ceremony alongside his old coach Joe Bell. Anderson was happy to reunite with his Handsworth family but even happier to stick it to his old school on the scoreboard.
"It was awesome, that was the whole point," he said with a laugh. "On our website we said 'Let's crash the party.' . . . That was the goal and we came away with what we came for."