The Western football team has finally decided to play an exhibition game and they're starting at the top of the mountain.
The Mustangs, who begin their inaugural training camp under new head coach Greg Marshall today after holding individual testing yesterday, will kick off their 2007 pre-season against the defending Vanier Cup champion Laval Rouge et Or Sunday afternoon at PEPS Stadium in Quebec.
"We were the only team in the (Ontario) conference that didn't have an exhibition game last year," said Marshall, who served as offensive co-ordinator for former coach Larry Haylor's final campaign. "We were going to play Windsor originally and we've had some calls from other teams. But this is going to work out nicely. It's a lot of travel early -- we're leaving on Friday -- but we're going to practise with Laval on Saturday and then play them on Sunday."
Saskatchewan made the trek to Laval last year. Both teams ended up playing for the national title, a development Western would like to see repeat itself with the Mustangs in the Huskies' place.
"That would be nice," Marshall said.
"I think this is going to be a good thing -- we have three good days of practice before the coaches decide who's going to go," Mustangs fifth-year running back Randy McAuley said.
"Western hasn't played an exhibition game in a long time and it should help. Usually, it takes the first game of the season to work everything out but this year, we should be able to hit the ground running."
The game will give Western's coaches an extra chance to evaluate potential starters.
The Mustangs have to replace much of their linebacking corps and also surround McAuley with quality rushers with D.J. Bennett and fullback Jay Akindolire both exhausting their university eligibility.
"The one thing you'd hate is to lose your quarterback (Michael Faulds) in an exhibition game," Marshall said. "You can't ever say don't hit the quarterback but there will be some elements of the game that will be controlled. One quarter, it will be all rookies, for instance. You want to get guys in so they get a feel for what to expect this year. Every team does it. Mac and Guelph are scrimmaging again and Windsor is playing a team from the (United) States."
McAuley, the school's reigning male athlete of the year, will be counted on to handle much of the ball-carrying duties. But he knows better than to expect being handed anything as a veteran player.
As a rookie, McAuley became a major factor while sharing the ball with fifth-year back Drew Soleyn. He knows first-hand how much say a hungry, young player can have in the Mustangs' fortunes.
"We have a lot of talented young guys and it wouldn't be very smart of me if I rested on my laurels," McAuley said. "If you say you've been here before and you can prepare for the season on that alone, that's when you end up getting lapped."
Last season, McAuley had the chance to get to know Marshall better and he understands what the new head coach expects from his players right from the start of camp.
"You have to be willing to work your butt off," he said. "There's no other way to put it. He demands a lot and that's the way it should be."
Laval, which played host to this year's university East-West Bowl senior showcase, is unlikely to return the exhibition favour next year and come to the newly installed turf at TD Waterhouse Stadium. The Rouge et Or routinely attract 18- 20,000 per home game and that kind of gate would be tough to give up, especially for a pre-season tilt.
Today: On-field training camp begins at TD Waterhouse Stadium.
Exhibition: Western at Laval, Sunday at noon at PEPS Stadium in Quebec.
First Game: Western vs. Queen's, Monday, Sept. 3, 7 p.m. at TD Waterhouse Stadium.