Marauders’ new stadium gets its OUA debut Sept. 13

Ten Ontario University Athletics football teams are making initial preparations towards what they hope will be a national championship season. Training camps open today across the province with one goal in mind – the Desjardins Vanier Cup on Nov. 22 at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium.

The 2007 season was arguably the most intriguing in the history of OUA as the No. 6-seed Western Ontario Mustangs defeated the No. 5-seed Guelph Gryphons 34-21 to win the 100th Yates Cup presented by Pioneer Petroleums, concluding a series of upsets that took place throughout the OUA playoffs. Casualties of both Western and Guelph’s Cinderella runs included the No. 2 nationally-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees and the No. 5 Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks.

The Mustangs lost their opening four games of the regular season, only to battle back with four straight wins just to secure a playoff berth. Western continued its dramatic run with road victories against Queen’s, Ottawa and Guelph to claim the 27th Yates Cup title in school history. The Mustangs lost to the Manitoba Bisons in the Mitchell Bowl, ending Western’s aspirations for a Vanier Cup title.

There are a number of capable teams that can knock the Mustangs off their perch in the OUA. The Gee-Gees had a perfect 8-0 regular season record in 2007, and had won 15 straight games against OUA opponents prior to their semi-final loss to Guelph. Defending OUA Most Valuable Player Josh Sacobie (Fredericton, NB) returns for his fifth and final season with the Gee-Gees, and is within 2,261 yards and 25 passing touchdowns of breaking the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) record for all-time passing yards and career touchdown passes.

Laurier is three years removed from its 2005 Vanier Cup championship, the last time the game was held in Hamilton. The Golden Hawks lost just one regular season game in 2007, and will look to regain Yates Cup glory in 2008. Scott Evans (Cambridge), the OUA’s top lineman, returns for his final university season where he hasn’t missed a game in his career.

Queen’s will look to improve on its 6-2 record from a season ago, and will welcome back defending OUA rushing champion Mike Giffin (Kingston) to the fold. The running back was selected 17th overall by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in this year’s Canadian Football League Canadian Draft, and will refine his skills at the varsity level before turning pro. Giffin led OUA with 1,157 yards in 2007.

McMaster has circled Sept. 13 on its calendar. That’s when the Marauders open their brand-new 6,000-seat Ronald V. Joyce Stadium. Linebacker Ryan Chmielewski (St. Catharines) had an impressive rookie debut in 2007, as his 35 solo tackles in the regular season was third best among all-time Marauders. He led McMaster with 50 total tackles, had 10 assists, and three sacks in eight games.

Guelph is looking to build on its upset victory over Laurier in the 2007 playoffs. Gryphons running back Nick FitzGibbon (Puslinch) scored four touchdowns in that win, including three on passes from quarterback Justin Dunk (Guelph). The dynamic duo has some unfinished business to settle in 2008.

Windsor had a down year in 2007, but will welcome back OUA career rushing leader Darryl Stephenson (London). The Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ draft pick (24th overall in the third round) has one more opportunity to become just the second OUA student-athlete to win the Hec Crighton Award twice. Stephenson won the award in 2006 after leading the CIS with 1,140 rushing yards and now sets his sights on the all-time CIS rushing record.

Waterloo is looking to make its triumphant return to the playoffs with receivers Sean Cowie (Burlington) and Joshua Svec (Blenheim) leading the charge. Both played on Team West in the recent CIS East West Bowl last May.

Two programs have changed head coaches during the off-season. The York Lions have turned to Mike McLean to turn around a 1-7 record. McLean led the Edmonton Huskies to two national junior titles, and most recently served as defensive coordinator with the Uteck Bowl champion Saint Mary’s Huskies. The Toronto Varsity Blues will counter with former assistant Greg DeLaval as interim head coach as they look to end their CIS record 49-game losing streak.

The regular season kicks off on Labour Day in five locations. Windsor visits York, Laurier hosts Guelph, McMaster is at Queen’s, Ottawa travels to Western, and Waterloo drops in on Toronto.