New turf a welcome football site

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:21 AM ET

The London football scene has officially gone topsy-turvy.

The Western Mustangs are interrupting training camp -- their first under new head coach Greg Marshall -- to travel 12 hours on a bus today for an exhibition game against defending Vanier Cup champ Laval on Sunday.

That's more time spent on the road than the Mustangs will deal with all season -- thanks to short trips to Hamilton, York, Guelph and Waterloo this fall.

The university team has been practising on the newly installed turf at TD Waterhouse Stadium this week but won't be the first to play a regular season game there.

The honour of that first game goes to the London Beefeaters, who usually knock helmets at John Paul II high school but will face the Windsor AKO Fratmen on the new surface tomorrow at 2 p.m. It's a battle to avoid the basement -- both are 0-2 following losses to perennial power St. Leonard and an improved Burlington squad.

The London Falcons, who always have at least one of three teams in a championship hunt every summer, are lobbying the city for land in order to construct a state-of-the-art gridiron facility.

They also wanted to be the first to play on the new stuff at Western and kept booking it but ran into the same success as a 300-pound offensive lineman trying to recover a fumble on wet grass.

The Falcons ended up playing their games at high schools like Oakridge and Aquinas. Not that it mattered -- they still won Ontario Varsity Football League titles in junior varsity and peewee.

This summer, the Forest City Thunderbirds played in a new league (the South Central Ontario Football League) at a new age group (junior varsity, 17-and-under) on a new field (Westminster secondary) because TD Waterhouse wasn't available.

Replacing the turf also kept the London Silverbacks off campus this year but the enterprising semi-pro team now calls Labatt Park home. Their North American Football League opponent didn't show for their first scheduled game at the old ballyard but they've since used the facility and are back again tomorrow with a 7 p.m. kickoff against the Genesee County Patriots.

The Silverbacks had a long playoff run last year and, even at 3-2 so far, look like they will be contenders again. They hammered Rochester, N.Y., 45-0 and now boast an offensive leader in quarterback Steve Panella, who led Saint Mary's to two Vanier Cups during his university career.

Before London, Panella threw passes for the Amarillo Dusters in the Arena Football League2 and just earned the top international player award. Starting all 16 games for Amarillo, he threw for 58 touchdowns and rushed for 22 more (everything, even football statistics, are bigger in Texas).

Imagine what he'll accomplish on a less-cramped field.

The bottom line is there's a lot of football being played in London and -- by choice or force -- teams haven't been afraid to 'play the field' when it comes to venue.

After finding a field, the next big step is booking officials. That was an issue at last weekend's OVFL finals.

London's junior varsity win in Toronto was officiated by a U.S. crew after refs from the Ontario Football Officials Association were told by the league before the game their services weren't needed.

The dispute stemmed from an OFOA belief that the OVFL didn't appropriately discipline Essex Ravens coach Glen Mills for "abuse/harrassment of an official, and for additional violations" in the playoffs. Mills, who elected not to coach his team in the senior varsity final, was fined but not suspended.

In a statement, OFOA president Mike Groleau said the "damage to the relationship between the officials and the OVFL is incomprehensible."


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