2016 didn’t end well for the Thunderbirds football team. UBC clinched the playoffs by the skin of their teeth before going out in the second round. Still, with a new season on the horizon, it’s time for the team to forget the past and begin fresh.
While the season has yet to start — UBC faces Regina in their first regular season game this evening — the ’Birds has one win under their belt. Last weekend, UBC played an exhibition game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears and came out on top 33-30.
This year, the ’Birds will be seeing the return of prominent players like Michael O’Connor and Marcus Davis. Joining them will be a squad of new recruits to bolster the existing talent on all areas of the field.
Here are a few names to look out for during the 2017/18 campaign:
O’Connor is easily the most recognizable face on the Thunderbirds football team. Since joining UBC in 2015, he has been the ’Birds’ main source of offensive firepower. Already, O’Connor has proven himself a force to be reckoned with. Last season, he averaged 324.8 yards per game — the third most in U Sports.
On top of his passing ability, O’Connor also brings an element of leadership to the table, which teammate Davis sees as being crucial to success.
“He’s a really good leader and he knows what it takes to win, so I’ve just been following along his lead,” said Davis. “I know if he’s leading us, then we’ll be alright.”
Like O’Connor, Davis also had moments in the spotlight during his years at UBC. In 2014, he was named Canada West Rookie of the Year and a CIS first-team All-Canadian as a kick returner; he finished that season with 1,293 all-purpose yards.
Going into his senior year, Davis is also one of many eligible receivers for O’Connor to pass the ball to. Others include Trivel Pinto, Alex Morrison and other returning teammates.
“We’ve built a really good chemistry with how we’ve been working for three, four years together,” said Davis. “We have Michael O’Connor throwing us the ball, so the sky’s the limit for us this year.”
One of many players to join UBC football this year is Ben Hladik, who previously played for the Vernon Secondary Panthers. Last year, he was the provincial MVP for AA schools at the BC high school football awards.
Notably, Hladik was the first player to sign with the T-Birds’ 2017 recruiting class, which happened only a week into the 2016 season. He will be helping to tighten UBC’s defensive line this upcoming season as a defensive back.
Noel grew up in Vancouver and attended high school at St. Thomas More Collegiate in Burnaby. Last year, the San Diego State Aztecs of NCAA sought to recruit Noel, but he decided to play for Loomis Chaffee Preparatory School in Windsor, Connecticut.
This year will be a homecoming for Noel, as he will be among those adding some punch to the Thunderbirds’ running back team. Last year, it was Ben Cummins who made the bulk of UBC’s rushing plays, racking up 970 yards and six touch downs in 11 games.
Ezekeke might be new to UBC football this year, but he is already eager for a successful season.
“The football here is much different — a lot more challenging. I have a lot to improve on, but I’m working towards it and hoping to help out my team in any ways possible,” said Ezekeke.
On top of football, Ezekeke will also be competing for UBC’s track and field team in the upcoming school year. He is one of few athletes to take part in two varsity sports.
“Track can help with speed,” said Ezekeke. “They complement each other, so it works out perfectly.”
Standing at 6’6” and weighing in at 290 pounds, Barnes will be using his skill and size in the upcoming season to boost UBC’s offensive line. The Calgary native was a star at Centennial High School and also participated in a Calgary Stampeders training camp in the summer of 2016.
Aside from being a standout for his high school team, Barnes stands out as one of few players to have played at the international level during high school. In 2015, he represented Canada’s U-18 team at the International Bowl.