Sun must shine tonight

Penticton Herald - - SPORTS - By LARRY FISHER

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.”

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