Justin Gabriel is improving as a football player with the Okanagan Sun.
Gabriel, entering his second season in the B.C. Football Conference, joined the team after playing for the Penticton Cougars before the association was forced to switch to a six-aside following a decline in numbers.
He considers himself lucky to have been with the Cougars when he was, but improving was a bit of a challenge. While the coaches did what they could to help him improve, Gabriel said they mainly worked with quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.
“It was pretty hard, but with the Sun, it’s awesome because you have an individual coach,” said Gabriel, who is studying human kinetics at UBC-Okanagan and has a B average.
The Penticton product was in Keremeos and met Tamiko Lyle, director of player scholarships and housing for the Sun and recommended that Gabriel tryout. Gabriel enjoyed his rookie season as he received lots of playing time.
“I had a pretty good rookie season I thought,” said Gabriel. “It was really nerve wracking. It was a higher intensity. The offensive lineman are a lot stronger. It was a big jump I thought.”
This season is also going well for Gabriel, who has noticed a significant improvement,.His playing time has been harder to come by as he is behind guys who are 20 and 22-years-old. Coach Shane Beatty, in his first season with the Sun, likes what he’s seen.
“He’s getting more reps in practice now, it just took him some time because the two or three guys in front of him are really good,” said Beatty, whose team is 7-2 for the season and in second place. “He’s so young. If he continues to lose a little bit more weight (listed on the Sun website as 6-feet, 290 pounds) and keeping going because he has a good first step. He’s got some potential.”
When Beatty joined the team he learned that Gabriel was a bit out of shape. Beatty likes that Gabriel is committed to doing the work.
“He’s quicker off the ball. It’s a different style of football that we’re playing, a different system defensively,” said Beatty, a Kamloops native, who was a linebacker for the Sun in 1990. “He’s got some good pop in him. He’s got some good strength.”
Beatty, who has 13 years experience working with National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II teams as well as National Association Intercollegiate Athletics and junior colleges, said Gabriel “was very green, very raw. He hasn’t had a lot of coaching.” Beatty likes that Gabriel always has a smile on his face, even though he doesn’t say a lot. He’s loved by his teammates and is described as coachable and wants to please.
Gabriel, who plans to play rugby for the UBC-O Heat, has discovered there is a lot of skill in the BCFC, including on the Sun who have defensive end Steven Doege and punter/kicker Steven Shott on the B.C. Lions practice roster. Gabriel would love to follow in their footsteps. For now, Gabriel intends to pay his dues and continue improving with one goal in mind.
“To win it all, the national championship,” said Gabriel.