The Mission Secondary Roadrunners begin the 2014 high school football season with a target on their backs.
The local senior squad is No. 1 in the provincial AA coaches' poll – a ranking which makes sense given their strong 2013 campaign (they lost in the B.C. semifinals to the eventual champion John Barsby Bulldogs) and the fact their current crop of Grade 12s won the B.C. junior title in their Grade 10 year.
"There's a little bit of pressure," said longtime coach Kevin Watrin. "But I would say that they're kind of used to it.
"They know they need to work hard, and that's what's going to get it done."
Leading the charge for the Roadrunners is senior phenom Jesse Walker. Last season, as a dual rushing/receiving threat, he racked up 782 rush yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, averaging an eye-popping 11.3 yards per carry.
This year, he's taking over the quarterback spot vacated by reigning B.C. AA player of the year Evan Horton, who is now playing for the UBC Thunderbirds. And that will only mean more opportunities for the speedster, who is also one of the province's top sprinters.
Walker’s game-breaking ability was on display during the Roadrunners' exhibition trip to the Los Angeles area in August. Mission dropped a 33-13 decision to St. Bernard High School, but Walker accounted for both Roadrunner majors in electrifying fashion on a 60-yard TD run and a 96-yard kickoff return.
"He also plays cornerback, so we know if the other team has their best receiver on one side, we can put Jesse on him and not worry,” Watrin said. “And then on offence, it's nice because he's the quarterback. You have your best athlete handling the ball every play."
The Roadrunners also expect big things from Riley DeMarco, who plays slotback and running back on offence and cornerback on D.
They've also got a deep stable of lineman who play both sides of the ball, led by the likes of Peter Kulba, Zach Wallace, Eric Pruis, Landon Rayburn and Kane Freestone-Smith.
"We don't have a giant," Watrin noted. "But we have really good technical linemen . . . that's going to be sort of the core of the team."
Watrin was set to move down from the senior level this year to coach the junior squad, with Danny Jakobs taking the lead with the seniors. But during the teachers' strike, Watrin – a vice-principal in the school district – is overseeing both teams until the impasse ends.
The senior Roadrunners kick off their home schedule Saturday with an exhibition game vs. Seattle’s Lakeside School. Next Saturday, Sept. 13, they host the AAA No. 1-ranked Terry Fox Ravens of Port Coquitlam. Both games begin at 1:30 p.m.