By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Feature photo: Alex France (L) shortly after winning the CJFL national semi-final over the Hamilton Hurricanes on Nov. 3.
The Langley Rams have been on a roll as of late. They’ve won nine straight games, including the British Columbia Football Conference’s (BCFC) Cullen Cup, as well as the Canadian Junior Football League’s national semi-final. On Nov. 17, they’ll face their biggest challenge yet, as they do battle with the four-time defending Canadian Bowl champion Saskatoon Hilltops, who topped Langley 39-14 in 2014 – the last time the two teams met for the national title.
The Rams have assembled a talented roster that features athletes from across Canada, five of whom are from Manitoba. One of those players is receiver Alex France, a product of the Midget Football League of Manitoba’s (MFLM) Interlake Thunder, who’s been with the team since 2017.
France was a late bloomer to football, not suiting up with Interlake until grade 11. His background was actually in rugby, as he lived in England until he was ten years old and played the forward/hooker position.
“Rugby was just something that I was born into doing,” he says. “My dad was a big fan of it and played when he was younger, and he got me and my brother heavily involved in it.”
France fell in love with catching the ball and scoring, which led him to play receiver for the Thunder for both of his high school seasons. He had a breakout senior year, making Team Manitoba Silver’s U18 roster in the summer while also being named a MFLM All-Star later that year after recording 34 receptions for 373 yards and a score.
He was quick to credit his head coach at the time, Kris Johnston for his success. The former bench boss for the Thunder most recently won a JV title as lead man for the Vincent Massey Trojans last week.
“It was a great time under coach Kris Johnston,” France says. “He just made the sport even better for me. He taught me a lot of life lessons too, not just about football. It was just a great time. All the guys were great there and the football was fun.”
France had junior football interest from both the Langley Rams and Westshore Rebels of the British Columbia Football Conference (BCFC) after high school, ultimately choosing the Rams for the 2017 season. He spent his first year learning under playmakers such as 2017 BCFC All-Star Khalik Johnson as well as 2018 standouts Jevon Cottoy and Nick Agnoletto.
“It was just different,” he says of the atmosphere in Langley.
“It was a fun, tough physical environment, which is all the things that I like. All the guys were great and the coaches were excellent. It was just a great football atmosphere and community.”
France and the Rams haven’t been without their share of adversity, however.
On a personal level, France broke his collarbone during the first game of the 2018 regular season and was out until the second last contest of the year due to complications from an infection.
“At first it was hard to believe, and I was more mad at myself for some reason. I’d put in all this work in the offseason and at spring camp and main camp and just like that I felt like it was gone. But returning at the end of the year, it just felt so good to be back in the pads and back with the guys.”
On a team note, the squad have endured mid-season coaching changes in back-to-back years.
In 2017, head coach Khari Joseph resigned with just three games left in the regular season, while this year, Matt ‘Snoop’ Blokker, a former multiple-time national champion with Vancouver Island and the winningest coach in BCFC history, stepped down mid-season.
“None of us really knew that coach Snoop would be leaving there,” France says.
“It was a big surprise for me anyways, for some of the other guys maybe not. I didn’t see that coming, but we knew as soon as coach Howie [Zaron] stepped up that we were in good hands, because he’s been around the game for a long time. The mood didn’t really change, we knew we had to keep the foot on the gas pedal and keep rolling with it.”
Zaron, a Langley native and former BCFC coach of the Year in 2007 and 2008 with the Chilliwack Huskers, was originally brought in as the club’s general manager at the beginning of the season, before taking over for Blokker. The team hasn’t lost a game since he assumed the controls, including winning their first Cullen Cup in four years.
“With this team, we practice like we play,” France says.
“Throughout the whole week, we were making sure the intensity levels were up and our hype level was up. The Saturday [of the Cullen Cup week] we had a practice and you could just tell there was a different mood. We were just ready for [the game].”
In just two days, France and the Rams will do battle with Saskatoon for the third time in seven seasons in the Canadian Bowl, looking to get their first win in the big game. No matter how it goes, he’ll look back on the season with positivity, despite its hiccups.
“It’s been a great year, but for me it’s been up and down with the injury. Regardless, it’s been one of my funnest years of football for sure.”