The challenge with having the kind of season the Langley Rams had in 2014 is that there’s really nowhere to go but down.
After all, how do you follow up a campaign where you won the Cullen Cup as B.C. junior football champions before losing to the Saskatoon Hilltops on your home turf in the Canadian title game?
Well, you win your final game of the season in November because if the Rams do that, they’ll be crowned as national champions.
Lofty expectations indeed, but that’s the mindset of head coach Jeff Alamolhoda and his experienced, savvy coaching staff have heading into the 2015 campaign, which kicks off this Saturday when the Rams visit the Vancouver Island Raiders at Caledonia Park in Nanaimo.
Alamolhoda said the coaching staff got together in the off-season to find ways to make the team improve.
“We just weren’t able to get past that hump,” Alamoholda said, referring to last season. “A few of the things we identified that we needed to improve on, we tried to focus on those pieces. It definitely came from a standpoint of needing to improve, for sure, wanting to improve not only on the field but off the field from an organization and club standpoint, and I feel that with the players that we have, they did a lot of off-season training, they’ve grown, they’ve matured, and with the players that we brought in are really going to help us get over that hump, hopefully.”
The sting of losing 39-14 to the powerhouse Hilltops in the 107th Canadian Bowl at McLeod Athletic Park – the second time in three years this has happened – isn’t a factor for a Rams team focused on defending its B.C. Football Conference title.
“We know as the defending BCFC champs, we have a target on our backs, every time we go into a game,” Alamolhoda said. “Every time we play a team, they’re going to have their ‘A’ game ready, and we’re going to have to be ready for that because, any given Sunday can happen.”
Last October, the Rams finished second in the BCFC standings with a 7-3 record, and then pulled off a mild upset by clipping the 9-1 Okanagan Sun 23-19 in the playoff championship game to win the Cullen Cup, and get another shot at a Hilltops team that defeated them in the Canadian Bowl in 2012.
But it wasn’t to be.
This season, the Rams lost a few key players but also have some real talent coming back including veteran centre Anthony Daly (who played pre-season games with the BC Lions) and defensive back/return specialist John Beckerleg, and starting tail back Nathan Lund, who both received invites to practise with the Lions.
Lund, who was named offensive player of the game in the Cullen Cup, will be counted on to literally help carry the Rams’ offence while Beckerleg is coming off an outstanding rookies season in which, on defence, he had five interceptions, returning one of them for a major, posted 16 tackles, three assisted stops and six knockdowns.
Beckerleg was also a terror returning the football, returning 36 punts for 484 yards, a 13.4 average per return, and two touchdowns. He also had 25 kick-off returns for 848 yards, a 33.9 average per return and four touchdowns.
He was co-winner as the BCFC all-star returner honours with Okanagan Sun player Robbie Yochim.
Quarterbacking the team is Devoun Hallums is in his second year with the Rams and has “really grown and matured and is starting to really take the helm,” Alamolhoda said.
Alamolhoda said the opportunity is there for players to step into starting roles and shine.
“I think they’re ready for it,” he said. “We prepared them at the end of the year, knowing that we were going to lose a few key guys, and we prepared them to be ready, do a lot of training in the off-season, we spent some time in the off-season working some of the schemes and schematics with them, and we’ve seen that difference, now, on the field.”
One of the players looking to have a stellar season is quarterback-turned-receiver Cecil Belanger.
“Just to perform at the best of my ability, whether that’s blocking, receiving, running, anything, pretty much,” Belanger said, of his personal expectations.
In his fourth year with the Rams, Belanger was with the team in 2012 and last year when they made it all the way to the Canadian final before losing to Saskatoon. He knows he’ll be counted on to bring a veteran presence.
“This is probably one of the youngest teams we’ve had,” he said. “The atmosphere out here is slightly different than before because I think everybody is actually trying to earn their spot. There’s never any positions set in place but at this moment in time there’s fewer veterans.”
Defensive tackle Brock Gowanlock said he truly believes that the Rams are capable of “great things this year.”
“We’re a young, talented team,” Gowanlock said. “We’ve got some really talented players.”
Gowanlock said it all starts with a win over the Raiders this Saturday.
“Going into VI [Nanaimo], it’s always a great game, a tough game, hopefully we can pull it out,” Gowanlock said.
Offensive tackle Jamie Wandell is in his fourth year with the Rams and said the team’s philosophy is straightforward: “To come out every day and play as hard as we can, play with a little chip on our shoulder, understanding that we’re not the team that we were last year, we’re something new.”
Reflecting on last year, Wandell said the experience of losing the Canadian Bowl could actually help some of last year’s rookies who are ready to take a more prominent role this season.
“It’s always tough to lose your final game, especially to lose it at home,” Wandell said. “That’s been our goal, always, is to win our last game at home and we weren’t able to take care of that last year.”
New behind bench
Jerry Friesen, who will guide special teams and linebackers, joins the Langley Rams staff out of the University of British Columbia, where he was the Thunderbirds defensive coordinator and academic coach for the past two seasons.
Friesen has 28 years of coaching experience in the CFL and CIS.
The native of Rosthern Saskatchewan was presented with the Frank Tindall Trophy as CIS Coach of the Year in 2004, after leading his University of Alberta Golden Bears to a 7-1 record and Canada West first place finish.
Friesen was an assistant coach at the University of Saskatchewan, his alma mater, from 1986 to 1995 and helped the Huskies win the Vanier Cup in 1990.
He joined the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders staff as linebackers coach in 1996 and was the defensive coordinator of the University of Calgary Dinos 1997 to 2000.
Friesen took over as head coach of the Alberta Golden Bears program in 2001 and led them to three consecutive Hardy Cup Appearances (2003 to 2005), he ran the Golden Bears program 2001 to 2010 before returning to the Roughriders as an assistant coach in 2011.
Friesen then joined the UBC staff in the spring of 2013.
Friesen played Junior Football for the Saskatoon Hilltops and then attended the University of Saskatchewan, where he was a two time CIS All Canadian linebacker for the Huskies.
Drafted by the Montreal Alouettes in 1978, Friesen played three seasons before returning to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he played five seasons and was honoured with the CFL’s Tom Pate Award for Community Service in 1985.
Friesen was placed on the UofS Huskies Wall of Fame in 1994 and inducted to the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.