Back to the city in which he grew up, where his family still resides, Chris Finden felt right at home at Masich Place Stadium Saturday night.
Playing for the visiting Kamloops Broncos against the Prince George Kodiaks in their inaugural home game in front of packed house, the 23-year-old Broncos wide receiver picked the perfect time to play the game of his life.
His efforts to shred the Kodiaks secondary and find open territory finally paid off in two pivotal plays that helped the Broncos lock down a 35-20 victory. Finden, in his sixth junior football season, used his speed and six-foot-three wingspan to catch an onside kick late in the first quarter that allowed Kamloops to retain ball possession. James Hubbard and his 39-yard catch and run then set up a two-yard touchdown run from Cameron Grzegorczyk to give the Broncos a two-touchdown lead.
But the best was yet to come for Finden, former D.P. Todd Trojan, who stunned the Kodiaks and their boisterous crowd when he took the handoff from quarterback Reid Vankoughnett on the opening play of the second half and took off on a 47-yard sideline scamper into the end zone. Finden’s first touchdown of his junior career put the Broncos up 28-14 and they never looked back.
“Our boys killed it, our offence killed it, our defence killed it, our special teams were on fire,” said Finden. “I had a little luck; our quarterback and my teammates made it pretty easy for me.
“Prince George and the Kodiaks did a helluva job, the atmosphere was so fun to play in. I don’t think we’re going to get another crowd like that again. It’s really fun to see football in P.G. again. I was a bad guy this time but that’s OK, I liked it.”
A near-capacity crowd of about 1,100 packed the grandstand at Masich Place for the first B.C. Football Conference league game ever played in the city, and what a party it was, watching two teams renew the Kamloops-Prince George rivalry on a warm August evening. The teams meet twice more during the 10-game season and Finden is hoping for the sweep but says that won’t be easy.
“That’s a helluva team and once they clean up their stuff they’ll be right there, too,” he said.
Finden left Prince George in 2017 to join the Vancouver Island Raiders for two years and has been with the Broncos since 2019.
“For a guy who was born and raised in Prince George, for him to come out and play the way he did, I’m proud of him,” said Broncos head coach Braden Vankoughnett. “He had a tough start, dropped that first catch coming his way but he regrouped and made a heckuva play and it was a great to see Chris play up tohis potential. I think he’s a CFL-bound player. He’s fast as heck and makes things happen and we’re going to get him the ball in lots of different ways.”
The Broncos coach said the Kodiaks organization did it up right and made the game a spectacle his players will remember for a long time.
“Shoutout to the Prince George Kodiaks, man what a show they put on tonight - everything from the pregame, the way they handled themselves with the organization, I’m excited to have this team in the league,” said coach Vankoughnett. “It was a lot of fun to come here and play and I’m looking forward to being back here in a couple weeks.”
Grzegorcyzk rushed for 97 yards on 17 carries and scored two touchdowns to help the Broncos (1-1) post their first win of the season. Kaleb Senz and Colton Meikle each connected with Vankoughnett for touchdown passes.
The Kodiaks (0-2) trailed 21-14 at the half. Keanu Brown erased an early 7-0 deficit with 49-yard touchdown run that brought the roaring crowd out of their seats. Duchess Park graduate Andrew Johnson brought the Kodiaks to within a touchdown when he scored on a four-yard run with two minutes left in the first half, after a 50-yard run from Andrew Brown.
The other Kodiaks’ major came with four minutes left in the game when Jerome Erickson caught Liam Oczkowski’s 35-yard pass in the end zone. Erickson, a former high school quarterback with the College Heights Cougar, is playing receiver now with the Kodiaks- whatever it takes to wear that jersey. As a P.G. boy, he loved just about every minute of Saturday’s game.
“It was exciting, it was awesome to hear the crowd and have the energy,” said the 19-year-old Erickson. “I’m a little mad about the fireworks in the end, though, because we lost, but it’s alright. I’m not going to dwell on this loss because we have so much room to improve. Everything we mess up on, same as two weeks ago, is fixable. It just comes with more time and more reps, that’s all we’re missing.
“I don’t any other team is more talented than us – teams are older and more experience than us and that’s where we’re falling short right now. Week by week, we’re getting there, but unfortunately it’s going to take us longer than other teams. We have only one guy older than 19 starting on the offence. The reality is, we’re young.”
The Kodiaks will head back on the road to Chilliwack on Saturday to play Valley Huskers, the team that beat them 31-5 in their inaugural BCFC game, July 23.
Kodiaks head coach Keon Raymond knows there’s still lots of room for improvement and that will come with more games and more practice time on the field.
“From the first game to this game we got better, but football is a game where you’ve got to take care of details and us being young, these guys gotta know details matter,” said Raymond.
The Kodiaks coach was encouraged by the poise under pressure shown by Oczkowski, an 18-year-old rookie from Calgary, who now has two junior starts under his belt.
“Liam made throws he needs to make and he missed a couple as well but at the end of the day, he’s the field general for us and we’ve got to do a better job of giving him opportunities and putting balls in our playmakers’ hands,” said Raymond. “He finished the game and that’s what I was excited about. We had some spurts and we were putting drives together and he was moving the ball well and he looked good, we just have to finish.”
Oczkowski hurt his ankle in the third quarter of his first game two weeks ago in Chilliwack and was showing no ill effects of the injury whenever he had to find quick feet to duck the Broncos’ rush. He knows he’ll get better with age and experience.
“I’ve got to get better myself and make better decisions and we’ll be back next week,” said Oczkowski., who had his mom Arlene watching from the stands. “The fan support was amazing, I can’t believe how many people were out, the atmosphere was great and I’m sorry we couldn’t get it done.”
Kodiaks offensive lineman Will St. Hubert, a BCFC all-star last year for the Vancouver Island Raiders, was a beast in the trenches all night, providing protection for Oczkowski. The 23-year-old from Ajax, Ont., is setting the example for his teammates on the field at left tackle. He knows there’s going to be growing pains as the Kodiaks develop their skills.
“The Broncos set the tone early and we just had to keep up after that and we just need to come together as a team and set the tone first, because that usually what ends up winning a football game, as well as consistency – we’ve got to work harder,” said the 22-year-old St. Hubert.
“I see our guys and they’re not happy we didn’t get the ‘W,’ but I see the potential this team has, especially if we practice the hard way, and the commitment we have to each other. It’s just going to be a scary team when it comes to playoffs. I’m taking the losses tough but at the end of the day I’m grateful to play every game.”
The reactions of the fans sent shivers down St. Hubert’s spine.
“That energy was amazing, that honestly was one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever played in front of,” he said. “I just kept looking a them and I just wanted to do it for the city, do it for them and I’m grateful for all their support. Honestly, I haven’t seen football considered such a culture until I came here.”