Members of Earl Marriott’s senior football team run through drills during a practice earlier this season. The team will play this year at AAA.

Members of Earl Marriott’s senior football team run through drills during a practice earlier this season. The team will play this year at AAA.

Earl Marriott Mariners take aim at new gridiron challenge

Earl Marriott senior football team makes jump to AAA level this fall

New challenges await members of Earl Marriott Secondary’s football team, as the high-school pigskin season gears up this month.

For the first time since the program’s inaugural season in 2005, Marriott’s senior squad will play at the AAA level, a move that was originally announced last year.

The decision to move to the AAA ranks – after having played recent seasons at the AA Tier 2 level – came on the heels of back-to-back Tier 2 provincials titles in 2014 and 2015. Last year, they won the championship game by a 40-14 score over the Howe Sound Tigers.

And though they could have easily decided to return for another title defence at that level, this year’s squad – players and coaches alike – are instead embracing the new opportunity, longtime head coach Michael Mackay-Dunn told Peace Arch News.

“We just outgrew Tier 2, so this is another step that we’re taking,” he said last week, in advance of his team’s first preseason game of the year – a home tilt against Richmond’s Hugh Boyd Trojans.

And though they’ve had plenty of success the last two seasons, Mackay-Dunn predicted his team – which began as a AA Tier 1 school 11 years ago, before dropping down a tier – would experience a few growing pains this fall as they adjust to better competition.

Earl Marriott will play in the AAA Pacific Division, alongside teams from all across B.C., including Rutland, Salmon Arm, West Vancouver and two North Van schools, Argyle and Handsworth.

“It’s going to be a growing process, but I’m confident that we have the right people here where we can find some success,” he said.

“As long as the kids embrace that level of competition, we’re going to improve. But it’ll be a process, for sure.”

The Mariners will be buoyed this season by “about a dozen” returnees from last year’s team, Mackay-Dunn said, while many of the newcomers are rife with raw talent, even if they’re short on experience. So again, the veteran coach is preaching patience.

“We have some very good athletes coming in, but they’re new to football,” he said.

“You have to be really smart to play football. It’s one thing to have ability, but another to know where you’re supposed to be running and what your responsibilities are… if you’re running to the wrong spot, nobody is going to get you the ball.

“Once they’re able to grasp what we’re doing, we’ll be even further ahead.”

As far as returning veterans are concerned, Mackay-Dunn said his team – at least on offence – “all starts with Owen Dickie.”

Dickie will enter his second season as the Mariners’ starting quarterback, and Mackay-Dunn was quick to heap praise upon the signal-caller.

“He’s a very gifted athlete, and he’s very intelligent,” he said.

On the defensive side of the ball, the same can be said for Bryce Niebuhr, Mackay-Dunn added.

Niebuhr, who plays outside linebacker and safety – as well as receiver on offence – is often the key to the Mariners playing a cohesive defensive game, the coach said.

“He knows what everyone out there is supposed to be doing – he’s our key guy out there,” Mackay-Dunn said.

The team will use the month of September to get into game shape – three more exhibition tilts are scheduled – before the AAA regular-season begins in October.

Today (Friday), the Mariners are in Nanaimo to face the Nanaimo District Secondary Islanders, and next week they’ll be back on home turn when they host the Robert Bateman Timberwolves on Saturday, 1 p.m. at EMS. They’ll wrap up the preseason docket Sept. 29 against Vancouver’s Eric Hamber Secondary.

The league schedule begins Oct. 8 when the Mariners host Rutland.

And while preseason victories are welcome, Mackay-Dunn said they’re instead using the games to focus more on improving.

“We’ll try to get the rust off and get some of the kinks out. That way, when we go into league play, we’ll be ready,” he said.

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