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Three Degrees of Separation: The Hyacks Community of Champions

Six degrees of separation.

It’s a theory that everything and all living things in this world are within just six or less steps of each other. So, if you grew up in a small town, it’s very likely that you know so-and-so’s Grandma. You probably find yourself saying, “That’s a friend of a friend of mine!” And you definitely know when your crazy neighbour Bob is throwing one of his notorious toga parties.

Honestly, it’s pretty damn beautiful to think that somehow, you know nearly everyone in your community by knowing just one person.

For the city of New Westminster, the head coach of the Hyacks’ senior football team says the social distance is even less than six steps.

“It’s a small town disguised as a suburb,” said Farhan Lalji while shading his eyes from the sun and looking on to his team practicing out on the field at Mercer Stadium.

“People here live here. There’s not six degrees of separation—there’s three.”

The home of the Hyacks is shockingly the only high school in all of New Westminster. Every single kid that lives in the area will inevitably end up together. And the more kids at a school, the more parents get hype to come watch their games. In other words, there’s a special connection between the community and their local sports team.

So, it’s no surprise why Coach Lalji was enamoured to start the program at New West 16 years ago.

“It’s a real unique setup on a number of different layers in British Columbia. So it seemed like the best place to be able to really, not just have a football program, but to, you know, capture a community,” he said. “I think [our program has] affected the kids within the community,” said Coach Lalji.

“I mean it’s created a real point of pride, I believe. Not just from a football standpoint, but in terms of how we attempt to raise young men. We really work on developing the person, not just the player. And those people—because people stay, they don’t all leave—all those players that have graduated, they stay connected to this community. And I think whether it’s other community members, whether it’s politicians, or whether it’s the school community; everybody kind of sees the difference it’s made in their lives, so they want to get involved. You come to a game like our homecoming game on Friday and it’s just a really good community gathering place here in New West. So all of those things…I don’t think that they would have worked anywhere else. They work here because of just how much pride they have in the one school that’s in this city.”

Lalji has been coaching for 31 years. He’s also a very prominent figure in the Lower Mainland, given his position as a reporter for TSN. Pair that with his passion for football and mentoring his team, and it’s easy to see why the program at New West is flourishing. Coming off a championship win last season, the team hopes to keep the momentum going this year, too.

“It was nice to finally do it,” Lalji said on taking home the 2017 banner. “I don’t get overly hung up on the fact that we won it, I don’t think that’s changed how we’ve operated as a program. But it was nice to see how it ends at the end when you’ve won. And the kids just, they got to celebrate, we got to be in the middle of that…they got to get it right. So, that was special to be a part of. And now they can always draw back on that. The kids that are playing now go through those critical moments—they know what it looks like to get through them and to fight through them, and what it looks like to finish. All those are pretty cool lessons.”

With a stacked squad led by four captains, including QB Kinsale Phillip, WR Ajay Chol, TE Shaye Rathjen, and OL Evan Nolli, Lalji says they’re “pretty well balanced” on the gridiron.

We caught up with a few of the captains after practice and they all seem to have one goal in mind: back-to-back championships.

“I want another championship and I want to just help lead the team to it,” said Shaye Rathjen, who’s been playing football for 10 years after his mom urged him to get into the sport.

He says his experience with the program at New West has been unparalleled.

“It’s been great. They’re just really supportive and they’re always there for you. And it’s a good community in New West.”

Evan Nolli, who began playing in Grade 8 (thanks to Rathjen), has a golden mentality for this season, as well. He credits last year’s win to his “family” on the field.

“We did amazing winning the championship. I feel like we had a really strong team, a lot of connections, a lot of brotherly bonds with the whole team, and we had depth in all positions,” he recalled.

By leading the team this season, Nolli is confident him and his brothers can repeat history. Teammate Ajay Chol also believes the boys are looking real good this year.

“We want to win. Our team’s really good this year…I just want to push my team and push myself into doing better than we did last year,” he said. “And that’s win the championship.”

Winning is a recurring theme that seems to constantly hover over the heads of each Hyack, as is the notion of brotherhood.

“We’re every day. We’re here together. When we see each other in the hallways, we’re usually together. It’s not just on the field—it’s outside,” Chol explained.

“We’re just a family.”

The closeness of this team—this family—and the community is admirable. With only “three degrees of separation” in New Westminster, the Hyacks have found their way into the hearts of nearly everyone in town, expanding their on-field family into the bleachers of Mercer Stadium, too.

“It’s just a fun group of guys. They all want to work hard, they all want to commit, they all want to win. I just think at their heart, kids still want to be led. They just want to believe in the group of people that are leading them. And I think we’ve got a really good group of coaches, and a real good community. There’s a lot of people that support them and I think the kids believe in that, so they all want to work hard. And I tell them that they’re special because there’s 1,800 people in the school that wouldn’t do what you do,” said Coach Lalji with a prideful smile.

“It’s a special place to coach and it’s a special place to play football.”

Be sure to catch the New Westminster Hyacks at Mercer Stadium this Friday in SportsCanada’s Game of the Week against the Seaquam Seahawks at 7:30pm.

Written by: Crystal Scuor

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