Team Manitoba’s senior men’s flag football team gained a measure of revenge this past weekend in Saskatoon, capturing gold at nationals after settling for bronze two years prior in Halifax.
This year’s edition of the tournament featured seven other teams. Five of the squads – including Team Canada’s roster – were from Saskatchewan, while there was also one team representing Alberta and BC, respectively.
The process of assembling Manitoba’s roster began in February, with the squad consisting of a number of players who were already key members of the PIT league.
“A lot of the trip was self funded by Mike Laping the head coach,” says Jamie Ybarra Jr., who spent this past season with the Vancouver Island Raiders of the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL).
“Jon Franklin also gave us enough preparation and playing time by going through (the PIT league).”
Manitoba rolled through their first two opponents in the four-team Pool A, defeating their competition by a combined score of 90-0. Former Winnipeg High School Football League Rookie of the Year Julian Banares was the catalyst during the day one drubbings, playing shutout defence all day long.
“Something clicked, I guess. I was pretty zoned in during all of our games,” he says. “It was pretty much the want and will to win.”
On the second day, Manitoba ran into the powerhouse Team Canada, which, among others, consisted of Chris Bauman, a former first overall pick in the 2007 CFL draft, as well as former Grey Cup champ Chris Getzlaf. Neither team had lost a game to this point, and the outcome would decide the winner of Pool A.
Team Canada got the best of the Manitoban’s in their round robin matchup, defeating them by more than two scores. Despite the loss, ‘Toba remained optimistic.
“It wasn’t that they outplayed us, we were just making little mistakes, and those end up costing you big in a condensed format,” Ybarra Jr. says.
“We knew we had the talent and chemistry to compete with Team Canada, we just needed to make sure we played an almost perfect game, and stayed committed to what we were doing.”
Following a 2-1 record in round robin play, Manitoba crossed over to Pool B, where they squeaked out a 16-13 win. Yet again, their defence came up clutch.
The following day, it was onto the semi-finals, where Manitoba defeated one of the Saskatchewan teams, the Blackshirts, 36-13. Team member Brandon Poulin, a former member of the Manitoba Bisons, and recent recruit of the Valley Huskers in the CJFL, was the star of the game.
[Brandon] Poulin had 3-4 touchdowns and nobody could touch him,” says team member and current Manitoba Bison Riley Harrison, who’s been participating in the PIT league for the last three years.
“That one was the Poulin show.”
Manitoba’s victory set up a rematch with Team Canada, and there’s no doubt that the ‘Tobans had revenge on their mind.
“No one wanted us to win, and no one thought we were going to win,” Harrison says. “It was kind of that vibe, because there were a lot of Saskatoon players on that team, and since we were in Saskatoon, they had a bunch of fans there.”
Manitoba set the tone early, getting a key defensive stop. On the ensuing drive, Harrison punched in a major, and Poulin secured the convert. The next series was much the same, with Poulin scoring, followed by a successful convert.
Despite a valiant effort from Team Canada, it wasn’t enough, as the Manitoban’s earned the gold medal with a 16-13 win. There were three and outs and interceptions both ways, but Team ‘Toba was ultimately able to get the job done.
“When we got the opportunity to play against [Canada] in the gold medal game, we knew what kind of adjustments we needed to make, especially defensively, and the offence also figured out which formations they needed to run to be successful,” Ybarra Jr. says. “We started out really strong in the gold medal game and then the defence held up huge.”
To top it all off, the soft spoken and humble Banares was named Defensive MVP of the tournament. His performance earned him a selection to Team Canada’s roster for the World Flag Football Championships, which take place later this year in Panama City.
“To be completely honest, getting selected was completely unexpected. I went out to Saskatoon with no expectations whatsoever besides going there and playing and winning the championship,” he says.
“Aside from the personal achievement, I really didn’t expect the invite, so now it’s just going to be preparing for that tournament, and playing at another level of competition which I haven’t experienced before.”