Haylor says McMaster still obstacle to crown

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:24 AM ET

Laurier Golden Hawks have been anointed the new kings of Ontario university football but the Western Mustangs think they know better.

In Western minds, McMaster is still the major reason the Mustangs haven't captured an Ontario gridiron title since 1998. Based on recent meetings, they have a good argument -- they're 0-6, including two playoff losses and a couple of blowout defeats, against the Marauders since 2001.

"The road to the Yates Cup still runs through McMaster," Western head coach Larry Haylor said this week. "They've been the best team in the league over the past five years."

So even with today's season opener against Toronto and next Saturday night's home opener against Guelph, Western's staff and players are well aware they won't know the true quality of their team until they head to Hamilton Sept. 17 for a game against the Marauders at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

"I'm looking forward to not having to prepare to face Jesse Lumsden," Mustangs defensive co-ordinator Paul Gleason joked of the former Mac running back who ran roughshod over the Stangs and the rest of the league the past few seasons.

Mac may not have Lumsden or head coach Greg Marshall anymore but they still have a top football program. For the Western game, they hooked up a doubleheader promotion with the Canadian Football League's Tiger-Cats and will try to jam enough Steel City backsides in the stands for a Canadian university football record.

It's the kind of afternoon, as they say, that will separate the men from the boys.

That game, plus the Laurier-Mac matchup on Sept. 24 and the Western-Laurier head-to-head on Oct. 8 in London, are the marquee events in the Ontario university football regular season. Though most of the league's 10 teams have added some impressive looking recruits, it's still hard to look at this as more than a three-horse race.

"It sounds cliche but a lot of the teams have improved," Haylor said. "Toronto will be better. Waterloo had been down for a while but they've gotten significantly better. Laurier isn't losing anybody. Ottawa had a young quarterback (Josh Sacobie) who was good last year and will likely be improved. Queen's had a tough season last year but they seemed to have gotten over the Tommy Denison hangover. It's going to be an exciting season."

Western lost quarterback Chris Hessel but doesn't see itself as rebuilding. They think University of Toledo transfer Michael Faulds has the stuff to guide the offence effectively. If he falters, they have Catholic Central grad Mark Howard, a veteran who battled hard for the starter's job, and big second-year thrower Lucas Garby.

And Western has one of the best groups of running backs in the country.

"We like our team this year," said starting tailback Randy McAuley. "We lost Chris but I think we have more weapons this year, a better balance. We can come after you from a lot of angles in a lot of different ways. We'll keep defences guessing."

It's anyone's guess what kind of senior year the Mustangs will get from star receiver Andy Fantuz. He has a large scar on his left leg from summer surgery to fix an injury suffered in the Gus Macker three-on-three basketball tournament.

Through three seasons, Fantuz is already the Canadian university leader in receiving yards and will add the country's receiving touchdown title with three more this season. He'll turn pro next year and if the Mustangs fail to win a semifinal this season, they will have to accept that they were unable to reach a Yates Cup game with arguably the top offensive player in team history on board.

The Mustangs still look at the 2004 season and felt they were a big reason why Laurier was able to win the Yates Cup on home turf. They're still miffed at a pivotal call that went against them in the final minute of a 38-34 regular season loss to the Golden Hawks.

That loss eventually cost Western a top-two finish, a first-round playoff bye and meant the Mustangs had to travel to Hamilton to play rested McMaster. The Mustangs lost but knocked out Hec Crighton Trophy winner Jesse Lumsden with a season-ending injury, forcing the Marauders to face Laurier for the Yates Cup minus their star player.

"We're not taking any game for granted this year," Western fullback Mike Bonk said. "The goal is, and always is, to win every game and finish first. That's the way it is here."

It's also an impossibility until they find a way to beat Mac. After that, anything's possible.


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