Sun must shine tonight
No tiptoeing into this season, the Okanagan Sun are going to have to dive right in tonight. Cannonball! Hosting the defending B.C. Football Conference champion Westshore Rebels of Victoria — in a rematch of last year’s Cullen Cup provincial final — the Sun will be looking to set the tone for 2017 when they kick off the campaign at 7 p.m. at the Apple Bowl in Kelowna.
“Nothing better to get guys focused than something real, with high stakes,” said Ben Macauley, returning for his second season as Sun head coach. “This game, already — every game counts towards seeding in the playoffs. We have to start with that mindset as a coaching staff, but not let that be the mindset of the players.”
Last season started on the road in Chilliwack with a 56-14 cakewalk over the Valley Huskers, and Okanagan didn’t face a playoffbound team until Week 3 — when the Sun shaded Westshore 27-21 in their home opener at the Apple Bowl on Aug. 6.
“This year, right out of the gate, we’re going to have to be playing really good football,” Macauley said of the BCFC’s marquee matchup for Week 1. Confident in one breath . . . “We’re really happy with the way camp went. We were trying to find some negatives for this week and trying to be critical, but there was really a lot of positives,” Macauley said of preparing his 77-man roster — including 35 newcomers — since training camp opened on July 14.
“We’re right where we want to be . . . as far as talent and health and athleticism. Overall, the team is really starting to come together and we’re starting to figure out our identity. We’re going to be a tough bunch, and we hope that we leave our calling card with every team we play and that is physicality.”
Yet, cautious in the next breath — tempering expectations to an extent.
“We need to peak later, we don’t want to peak right now,” Macauley said. “All we need to do is be better next week than we are this week. If we get wins along the way when we’re doing the right things, bonus.
“We don’t want to make too big of a deal out of this game. Obviously, there’s a lot of circumstance around this first game and being a rematch of the Cullen Cup, but we’re not thinking too much about that.
“We’re such a different team, they’re a different team as well, but the rivalry is strong and guys will have no problem getting motivated for this one.”
No one knows what to expect from tonight’s initial measuring stick — aside from a hard-hitting contest.
The Rebels are already known for their physical brand of football — thanks, in part, to former Okanagan bench boss Shane Beatty, now in his second season as Westshore’s defensive coordinator — and the Sun are fired up to match that intensity from the outset.
“Beatty’s got a hell of a team over there, so it’s going to be a really great game,” said sophomore linebacker Conor Richard, who came from Tennessee and turned into an impact player as the 2016 season progressed.
Now, he’s stepping into the role vacated by Layne Hull, last year’s team MVP, the BCFC’s defensive player of the year and an All-Canadian graduate.
“I kind of like coming out against that team, to be honest, because it’s really going to show us what kind of team we are,” Richard said. “It’s not going to be a cupcake game, we’re going to have to come out and play smash-mouth football.”
Regardless of the result, it’ll be fun to hit somebody that isn’t their teammate for the first time since Oct. 29 — when the Sun fell 32-21 to the Rebels in Victoria, trailing that championship game 25-0 at halftime and seeking some form of redemption tonight.
“It’s a culmination . . . we’ve put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of work in the off-season, but to finally strap it up, you’re not living if you don’t have some goosebumps and some butterflies in the stomach going into this one,” Macauley said. “We’ve got the greatest game-day experience around, here in Kelowna. To play in front of our family and friends, in a packed house, it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing, it’s always a good time.”