Big turnaround for Laurier
By JOSH WEBSTER -- SLAM! Sports
It is not a huge surprise that McMaster and Queen's are in the OUA football semi-finals. After all, Mac has been the team of the young century (at least in Ontario) with a record of 30-1-1 over the past four regular seasons, including three consecutive Yates Cup championships.
Meanwhile Queen's has an impressive 8-1 record this season after losing the Yates Cup to Mac last year. Led by 2002 Hec Crighton award winner Tommy Denison, most expected Queen's to give Mac a run for their money in 2003.
But one of the bigger surprises in the OUA this season is the play of Laurier. After a mediocre 1-7 record in 2002, the Golden Hawks, ranked No. 7 in the nation, have compiled a record of 7-2 en route to an OUA semi-final matchup at Queen's this Saturday. And the way they have performed, it should not be a surprise if they are the team to finally pry that Yates Cup from McMaster's tight grip.
For head coach Gary Jeffries, his team's incredible turnaround isn't a big surprise. Jeffries, a member of the Laurier coaching staff for over 25 years, replaced Rick Zmich as head coach of the team back in April.
"I just think that our kids have been focused right from the time they finished last year and they worked extremely hard in the off-season," Jeffries explained after his team's 38-17 win against Ottawa in an OUA quarterfinal last Saturday.
"We had a good recruiting year, we brought in some new coaches who have done a great job, and I just think that the entire group have just come together. And we weren't a bad football team last year that's probably number one. Our record wasn't good but there are a lot of good kids in the program. We just got one year older and we got a little better."
There were signs that Laurier wasn't as bad as its 2002 record may have indicated. The Golden Hawks scored a total of 150 points in eight games, better than five teams in the conference. Their 137 points against ranked fourth in the OUA. And five of their losses were by three points or less.
Those narrow defeats in 2002 turned into wins in 2003. Laurier's only two setbacks this season came in a 31-28 overtime loss to Western, and a last second 26-23 defeat against Queen's.
"We expected that we were going to do well," admitted Jeffries. "We're disappointed in the game that we lost and the game that we tied (overtime loss). We thought we should have won them all. No, we expected we were going to do well."
Laurier has many stars leading the way, none better than running back Derek Medler. Medlar finished the regular season with an incredible 1420 yards rushing, only 77 yards behind CIS leader Jesse Lumsden of McMaster.
Quarterback Ryan Pyear has an efficiency rating of 149.79, good for fourth best in the CIS. Defensive back David Agro has five interceptions, tied for seventh in the nation.
Slotbacks Andrew Baechler and Andrew Agro lead the team in receiving yards with 429 and 396 respectively. And slotback Bryon Hickey has scored 11 touchdowns in addition to his two against Ottawa last Saturday.
It is obvious that Laurier has many weapons to turn to on offence.
"Our philosophy's been all year one team
and I think if you look at the stats our receivers across the board they're all balanced," Hickey said after last week's win against the Gee-Gee's. "I think maybe Baechler may be leading the way in terms of yardage, but catches, receiving yards it's pretty balanced."
"We've got a balanced offence, the o-line is doing the job, giving them time to either run or pass. We've got a good balance and everybody is doing their job. We've got the players that can do the part so that's good."
It also helps that the bad breaks in 2002 have turned into good fortune in 2003.
"A lot of things went wrong last year," explained Hickey. "I think inside none of us ever doubted that we had the talent to do it. We caught a lot of tough breaks last year, and not to use excuses but we got everyone on the same page now. Everyone is on the same page, same philosophy and the guys are doing now what everyone thought we could do last year. Everyone is stepping up and we're all doing it this year."
Part of being on the same page is wearing the same hairstyle, at least for some members of the team. Hickey is one player who has gone away from his natural hair colour for a bleached blond look.
"It's just a little team building pretty much," said Hickey of the hair experiment. "Like I said everyone is on the same page this year, a lot of one team
stuff. A couple of guys brought it up, and it was just kind of something fun, a little unity thing I guess. We'll probably see a couple of more guys next week with the hair dyed too."
"Yeah, it's just a team builder. It's a pretty close group. We're just having fun with it, enjoying it, enjoying the winning season compared to last year, and having a lot of fun with it."
Queen's is all that stands between Laurier and a Yates Cup appearance. The Golden Gaels may have stole a win in Waterloo back in early October but Laurier is more than willing to return the favour in Kingston this weekend.
Despite the loss to Queen's, there is a lot of confidence on the side of Laurier.
"We know we're in the same league," acknowledged Hickey. "We hear a lot about Mac and Queen's being the upper echelon of the league but I think there is no doubt this year that we proved that we can play with them. I think we got to go down there and beat them to prove that we are up there with the Queen's and Mac but there is no doubt in our minds that we can definitely play with Queen's."
"Our kids know we can play with them," added Jeffries "We know we can play. That's huge."
Football fans will see on Saturday whether the Golden Hawks can back up those words. Don't bet against it.