Lions football team poised for success in 2017-18 season

Prior to each of the past two seasons, York Lions football head coach Warren Craney says the team he’s assembled is his best one yet at York, and the 2017 version of the Lions is no different.

Thanks to tremendous growth from his stellar 2015 recruiting class and another strong crop off rookies, Craney believes this year’s squad tops the others and will prove it on the field.

“Our expectations are very high this year,” he said. “We are an extremely talented, skilled football team and we are ready to challenge for a playoff spot. We expect our offence to expand on its performance from last year and the defence to make drastic improvements.”

After a disappointing finish to last season, the squad got to work immediately to get better in preparation for this year. While the coaches were out recruiting a third straight impressive class, new strength and conditioning coach Kamau Peterson, who was also named the offensive coordinator, established a program that was unlike any other.

“All of our efforts went into speed and power training,” said Craney about the program. “We ran and lifted more than anyone else in the OUA (Ontario University Athletics), I can guarantee that. We pushed our players to the limit and they completely bought in. The outcome has been remarkable: We are still a young football team, but we are stronger and faster than we ever have been and it shows.”

The strength of last year’s squad was the offence and this year should be no different. The Lions are fortunate to have third-year quarterback Brett Hunchak under centre. In just two seasons, he has already proven to be one of the best at his position in the OUA after finishing among the top five in passing yards and touchdowns. After a second straight summer at a CFL training camp – this year with Edmonton after spending time last year in Calgary – he is poised for an even bigger campaign.

He will have no shortage of offensive weapons at his disposal. His younger brother Colton Hunchak was an OUA all-star as a sophomore after finishing third in the conference in receiving touchdowns, sixth in total receptions and seventh in receiving yards, while veteran Adam Adeboboye had a breakout campaign to rank in the top 10 in catches and yards. The receiving corps also includes Alex Daley, whose prowess in the return game put him fourth in the OUA in all-purpose yards, and incoming freshman Luther Hakunavanhu, another player from Western Canada who’s already turning heads.

In the backfield, 2015 OUA rookie of the year Jesse Amankwaa is healthy again after missing most of last season with an injury, and Kayden Johnson, a dual-sport athlete who won an OUA silver medal in the heptathlon last season, was fifth in the conference in yards per rush while taking over the starting role.

They will play behind a rebuilt offensive line that has many new faces, but projects not to miss a beat from last year.

“The unit is built around Ryan Farr, who has been injured for most of the last two seasons but is finally healthy now and has looked like a beast in training camp,” said Craney. “We were fortunate to have seniors Chris Smith and Anthony DiNardo return and the two of them have done a lot in the last six months to get bigger, stronger and more athletic. And then we added Aarmin Purewal and Lane Raposo, who are step-in players and legitimate CFL prospects, and we are beyond excited to have them here. We also have rookies James Duffey Jr. and Chavaughn Barrett, who are everything we expected of them so far, and a bunch of other young kids to develop. We feel like we are in great shape at this position.”

The Lions’ defence remains a work in progress and will have a new leader in defensive coordinator Sammy Okpro. He has plenty of talent to work with across all the positions. The secondary will benefit from the return of Jacob Janke, who went down in the opener last year and missed the rest of the season. Fellow defensive back Ian Lawrence is coming off an East West Bowl appearance and a career year in which he ranked sixth on the team in tackles, and newcomer Desi Dixon brings an abundance of experience from his high school playing days in his hometown of San Diego.

The defensive line features two reigning OUA all-rookie team members in Rossini Sandjong-Djabome and Skye King, as well as fourth-year veteran Matthew Skoko. Skoko started his Lions career as a walk-on but has become a fearsome defensive end who recorded a pair of sacks in the East West Bowl earlier this year.

Behind them, the linebackers lost more to graduation than any other group, but the unit has a handful of players ready to step in right away. The leader is Andrew Smith, who was third in team tackles in his first year last season, and the group also includes Damian Jamieson and Alexei Brazeau, as well as rookie Philippe Girouard, a local product from Newmarket and the York Region Lions.

Craney has been touting his team’s progress in recent years and the squad has responded in kind. The next step is the playoffs and he has no doubt his team is ready to battle for a spot.

“We have the talent in place at all position groups. Now we need to compete, and we need to face adversity head on and not give up when things get tough. If we can do those things, this is a team that can contend.”

The regular season begins on Sunday, Aug. 27, when the Lions welcome the Yates Cup finalist Western Mustangs to Alumni Field for the opener.