Season Preview: Talented QB Tandem Highlights New Look Broncos

by Jamie Shinkewski

The 2018 season is just around the corner with a new-look Kamloops Broncos looking to improve upon identical 2-8 records that has seen them fall short of the playoffs for the past two seasons.

The offense will look much differently this season. Gone is starting quarterback Colby Henkel, who threw for 1,915 yards last season, nine touchdowns, and ran for 209 yards. He will instead suit up for the University of Windsor Lancers this season.

The pre-season hype has surrounded highly-touted rookie quarterback Reid Vankoughnett who will battle for playing time with Rylan Matters, who had 1,064 passing yards with the Langley Rams last season. The new tandem will force a tough decision for the coaches ahead of Sunday’s season opener.

“We were pretty fortunate to get Reid Vankoughnett out of Winnipeg. He’s a great young talent and I think he has a great future. He’s looked really good in training camp and obviously through the last couple weeks of main camp as well,” said Head Coach Brad Yamaoka. “Rylan as obviously a pleasant surprise and gives us two solid guys to go into the season with.

“I think we’ve got probably one of the better one two punches we’ve ever had. It gives us a lot of options but it also puts a bit of a strain on us because you want to see those guys play.”

It remains to be seen who they will throw the ball to. The receiving core will be much younger this season as back-to-back receiving yards leader Brody Bernier has graduated to St. Mary’s University, and veteran Brett Ablitt has transferred to the Vancouver Island Raiders.

“We’re going to be young there, but obviously we’ve got a couple guys coming back. Timmy (Solypa) and Thijs (Duineveld) are two returning guys who I think are going to carry the load with our receivers,” Yamaoka said. “We’ve got some guys who I think are going to surprise some people. Matt Wight another guy who’s been around for a few years and he’s just coming into his own. We’re excited to see how these guys are going to perform and what they can do on the field when they get out there.”

The backfield will be without rookie standout Max Joseph who took his 279 rushing yards, 392 punt return yards and 272 kick return yards to the Langley Rams this season. Returning leading rusher Andrew Pocrnic’s 312 rushing yards and Trent Price’s 130 rushing yards will likely lead the way in front of some talented off-season running back recruits.

Andrew and Trent are back again and were looking for them to carry the load for us most of the year,” Yamaoka said. “We’ve brought in some young talent we have Sam Hill out of Calgary that has done really well in camp and I’m excited to see what he can do in a game.”

The offensive line will be without Tristan Murray for the first time in four years as he graduated to join the Acadia University Axemen, and Yamaoka said it opens the door for other players to step into a starting role. They will be lead by Derek Walde, recently ranked as the 50th best player in the CJFL.

“It’s always tough losing some veteran guys, especially at O-Line. It’s always been our Achilles heel with our program over the past few years,” Yamaoka said. “We’ve brought in some older guys who I think can help us. It’s a case where we’ve had players on our roster who have been practising with us over the past couple years and maybe getting a bit of playing time here and there over the course of the season and I think it’s time for those guys to start stepping up and we’ll see how they all do.”

Defensively the Broncos have once again seen a lot of turnover. Last season’s lone All-Star Jesse Zajaros has graduated to the McMaster University Marauders, and key defensive players Connor Thornewell, Kieran Muir, Landon Wilkinson, Darcy Cherneff, Jonas Haeni and Tevin McCarty, who will suit up for the York University Lions, will not be back in blue and orange this season. They combined for 155 tackles, four sacks and the only interception the Broncos had in 2017.

Expect the defense to be led by fifth-year lineman Kurtis Mutschmann who was ranked 44th best player in the CJFL and Darby Kwan who was ranked 30th.

“We’re going to be young again. It seems like we can’t keep these guys as they keep moving on to the next level,” Yamaoka said. “We brought in some guys, a lot of these guys are coming in from the prairies, some of these guys have CJFL experience and some of them have university experience. I think we’ll be ok. It’s just a matter of gelling the team together because there are a lot of new faces on defense. It’s going to come down to how well they can work together and work as one unit.”

Kicking is the one position to see everyone return from last season. Landon Munk and Bryce Couture both return to bolster a position that has been troublesome over the past few seasons. Munk took over kicking duties partway through last season, and went 7-for-12 on field goals and 12-for-12 on extra point converts after Couture opened the season 2-for-7 on field goal attempts. Couture found more success as the punter putting up 2282 punting yards on 77 punts last season.

With no exhibition games, the new-look Broncos will face one of the toughest tests Canadian junior football has to offer when the Okanagan Sun come to Hillside Stadium for the Week 1 matchup on Sunday.

“We’re going to be in tough. From my perspective the first week they’re the team to beat for the season,” Yamaoka said. “It’s going to be a good test for us to see where we’re at, to see if we can handle the pressure and to see if they’re able to step their game up and play at that higher level where some of these better teams, or more traditional type of  teams that have done well are at.”

The 2018 season kicks off Aug. 5 at 4 p.m. at Hillside Stadium against the Interior rival Okanagan Sun.