“We don’t want to be a weak sister. We want to be competing for a playoff spot or more than that. We want to build something the people of Kamloops can be proud of.”
— Dave Arthurs, Kamloops Broncos director, January 2007.
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t a little bit tragic.
The Kamloops Broncos, upon learning that they have officially qualified for the B.C. Football Conference postseason for the first time, turn to Kelowna’s Okanagan Sun for advice on how to pay for the road trip to their playoff game.
Blake Rodgers, the Sun’s second vice-president, simply laughs.
“I said, ‘Thanks for laughing at me,’ ” said Broncos president Dino Bernardo. “He told me that the league pays for playoff travel expenses. We didn’t know — we’ve never made the playoffs.”
The Broncos will officially make their playoff debut on Saturday, when they face the Vancouver Island Raiders in Nanaimo. The Raiders, the BCFC’s top team for the past eight seasons, finished 8-2 and first in the league; Kamloops was 2-7-1 and tied for fourth, good enough to capture the last semifinal berth.
After seven seasons in the conference, the Broncos will finally taste postseason football.
It has been a struggle on the field — to put it mildly — but also off the field. Bernardo admitted Thursday that the team hadn’t budgeted for playoff travel.
“The league covers travel,” Bernardo said. “If it wasn’t for that, we would have been hard-pressed.”
The idea for the Broncos was formed in 2006, after the Kamloops Cowboys franchise had been kicked out of the BCFC in 2003. The Cowboys had played three seasons, never making the playoffs, but fell into debt and the BCFC forced them out.
Stefen Reid, a Westsyde grad who went on to a CFL career, went to work, raising money to pay off the debt. He and a handful of other volunteers — Bernardo, Dave Arthurs and Al Gill, among them — worked their way back into the good graces of the league, and the team was allowed back in for 2007.
The old name was dropped, and the Broncos came to life.
But it wasn’t easy. The Broncos lost their opener 37-0 to the Trojans in Vancouver, before losing 57-2 in their home-opener against the Victoria (now Westshore) Rebels the next week.
Perhaps the low point came in Week 7, on Aug. 25, 2007, when Kamloops lost 97-0 to the Raiders in Nanaimo. It remains the second-worst loss in Canadian Junior Football League history.
“That game was when we realized we were in over our heads,” Bernardo said. “We thought originally that it would be easier to get players — we have this great facility here and a former CFL player (Reid) coaching. We were recruiting on how great Kamloops was.
“When we lost that first game, and then that 97-0 game . . . we realized that we had to pick up our game.”
The plan was to get the Broncos into the playoffs within four years, and it almost worked.
In 2010 — the fourth season — the Broncos won three of their first seven games.
They knew a victory in Week 8 against the Rebels would all but clinch a playoff berth. The Rebels got a touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter to win 13-9, and the Broncos hadn’t been that close to the playoffs again — until now.
“We set an achievable goal, and thought that we could do it (make playoffs) after Year 4,” Bernardo said, “and Year 4 was as close as we came. But after that, we had to rebuild and regroup.”
This rebuild included back-to-back 2-8 seasons — essentially, the average season for the Broncos, who are 14-55-1 through 70 games — before this 2-7-1 campaign. But the team’s struggles haven’t been the fault of the players, who have dutifully done all they can, or the coaches, who are up against a “shoe-string budget.”
“We’re the lowest-budget team in the league, hands down,” Bernardo said. “Even (the Valley Huskers in Chilliwack) have more of a budget than us. We’ve been limping along for seven years on a shoe-string budget”
This hurts the Broncos’ recruiting efforts, not to mention the coaches’ work. Duncan Olthuis, the Broncos’ head coach, is the lone person on the coaching staff to get paid.
“Duncan gets enough to basically covers his expenses,” Bernardo said. “He probably gets a quarter of what the next lowest-paid coach in the league gets. He just does it because he loves football.
“We don’t have as many coaches as the other teams, and you have to pay your coaches if you want to compete,” Bernardo went on. “We can’t be in the upper echelon if we can’t pay coaches.”
The BCFC understands that teams like the Raiders and Sun will always have a bigger budget than the likes of Valley and Kamloops, and created a tiered schedule in 2012. Basically, the league’s top three teams from the previous season will play each other more often, while the bottom three teams will do likewise amongst themselves.
The Broncos benefitted most from the BCFC’s tiered schedule this season, with the Rebels being hurt because of their success in 2012. Kamloops only had to play one game each against two of the league’s top three teams, Vancouver Island and Langley, while Westshore had to play the Rams and Raiders three times each.
With the BCFC not exactly being a league of parity, the Rebels were almost guaranteed six losses before the season started, seven if you count their lone game with the Sun, which had an off-year in 2012 but finished 8-2 in 2013.
Because of this, the Broncos only had to finish higher than the Huskers — a team with one victory over the two previous seasons — and win one of their two games with Westshore.
When Grady Chalmers blocked the point-after try on a last-second touchdown in a 37-36 victory over the Rebels at Hillside Stadium on Sept. 14, the Broncos knew they had made the playoffs.
This, despite a 2-7-1 record . . . despite being shut out three times . . . despite losing their last three games by a combined score of 20-103.
“This is a big step, but no one is happy to get in this way,” Bernardo said. “We did it on a two-point difference with (Valley) . . . we thought before the season that this could be a 5-5 team.
“But being a playoff team, we hope, will help us recruit and help us get funding.”
Another of the original directors’ goals was to improve all football in Kamloops, but even that is getting mixed reviews. The South Kamloops Titans varsity team folded due to lack of players, despite Kamloops Community Football being in its sixth year.
KCF was started in conjunction with the Broncos, but now is its own entity. Still, it might be the future of the Broncos.
“That started six years ago,” Bernardo said, “and next season is when we get the first products of that.”