The McMaster Marauders are a game away from their second straight trip to the Vanier Cup after a record-breaking season that culminated in a 30-13 Yates Cup victory over the Guelph Gryphons on Nov. 10.
Mac set a new CIS record for consecutive wins with 20, surpassing the mark of 19 held formerly by the 2004-05 Laval Rouge et Or. Several Marauders received individual OUA honors. Kyle Quinlan took home the conference’s MVP award for his play at quarterback, linebacker Aram Eisho captured the Presidents Trophy, awarded yearly to the OUA’s outstanding defensive player, and Ben D’Aguilar was the J.P. Metras recipient for lineman of the year.
Additionally, Stefan Ptaszek was honored as the Dave “Tuffy” Knight coach of the year. The numerous accolades for both the team and its players, ten of which were named first team OUA all stars, could be a distraction, but Ptaszek doesn’t let his team get distracted.
“Championship football teams, awards, all stars – and we have a few – are byproducts of a great season. We will continue to focus on the on field product and reaching our full potential on the field. These side things, we don’t let them distract us from the task at hand, which is to get back to our second straight Vanier Cup,” said the seventh-year head coach.
“It is about getting these young men to their full potential, and their potential is very high,” he added.
For this year’s team, there have been many challenges. Injuries have been an issue since before the season’s first snap. During training camp, Michael DiCroce and Chris Pezzetta both went down with ailments that saw both miss the entire 2012 regular season.
Ptaszek admires his team’s perseverance.
“We saw our receivers all grow and develop. In the absence of Michael DiCroce, Robert Babic and Bradley Fochesato had career seasons.”
In the backfield, though, Pezzetta was not the only casualty. “We saw in the absence of Chris Pezzetta that Jimmy Hill can step up. In the absence of Hill, we saw Tanner Forsyth step up, and in the absence of Forsyth, Kasean Davis can step up and so forth,” said Ptaszek.
Despite all of the uphill battles, the Maroon and Grey have found their way back to playing for a chance at the national title. Over the past two seasons, Mac has a record of 21-1. But if you ask Ptaszek, it is the last game that matters the most.
“If you are going to look at the most dominating teams in the history of the CIS, I think that you will find the second Vanier to be much more relevant than 20, 21 or 22 wins in a row,” he said.
“It’s a neat thing. It signifies some great things going on in the program, but in order to be considered to be one of the best teams to ever play in the CIS, we have to get a couple more things done.”
In short, there is plenty of football left to be played. Standing between the Marauders and a trip to the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Nov. 23 is the Calgary Dinos.
On the field, the Mitchell Bowl will be the season’s toughest test. However, home field advantage is invaluable to the team’s success, according to Ptaszek.
“It is a real and tangible and contribution that those six thousand fans are making, then afterwards, when you celebrate, to look and see a sea of maroon and Ron Joyce in the background. These are memories for these young men that they will never forget.”
Although Saturday’s game is only a semi-final matchup, the Marauders (10-0) and Dinos (9-1) are ranked one and three, respectively, in the CIS top ten ranking. The second ranked team is the Dunsmore Cup champion Laval Rouge et Or, who Mac defeated to win the 2011 Vanier Cup trophy.
No. 1 McMaster Marauders (10-0)
For the last three seasons, the Marauders have had the best secondary in the CIS. No team has had more regular season interceptions (53) than the Marauders in that time period. It seems that the “dirty birds” are even more vicious in the playoffs.
“When it comes to interceptions, they seem to get more in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. It seems that the bigger the game, the bigger the contribution is from those kids,” said Ptaszek of his defensive backfield. The Marauder defense has been among the most solid units in the CIS as a whole this season, with a front seven including the likes of Aram Eisho and Ben D’Aguilar, who each took home some hardware this year for their play.
There can be no mistake, though, that the Kyle Quinlan-led offense is the heart of this team. According to Ptaszek, Quinlan is the leader of this team. “He is the guy we all look to to make a play. The chips are down, coaches, players, offense, defence, they look at 12 to right the ship. Most guys in that role would feel the pressure and wouldn’t be as calm, as collected and as patient with everyone around them. Kyle manages that role better than anyone I have ever seen, and he is a unique leader.”
Recently returning from injury, Michael DiCroce has contributed heavily in the first two playoff games. The Marauders air attack led the nation with 22 passing touchdowns in 2012. If the game is close, kicker Tyler Crapigna can make a large contribution. No CIS team has been more successful in field goal attempts this year.
No. 3 Calgary Dino’s (9-1)
Head coach Blake Nill has put together a powerhouse team at the University of Calgary. This season, the Dinos were the most prolific scoring team in the country. No team in any conference scored more points (380) and no team had a better point differential (283). The Dinos allowed only 117 points all season.
According to Ptaszek, the Hardy Cup champions are a force to be reckoned with. “Once you watch the film, Coach Nill of the Dinosaurs has put together a team with one purpose in mind, and that is to win a Vanier Cup. They are the most talented group we have seen so far. They are wired to be a national champion. It will take our best game to survive the day.”
Calgary has some extremely talented playmakers on both sides of the ball. Offensively, quarterback Eric Dzwilewski had an outstanding season and has been nominated for the Hec Creighton trophy (competing against Mac’s Quinlan for the honors). Runningback Steve Lumbala is also a constant threat to break a big play, averaging 8.1 yards per carry, the best average in the CIS for backs with 70 or more rushes. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Mike Edem is a production machine, recording 55 tackles, four sacks and one interception in 2012.
For Calgary’s playmakers, it all starts on the line. “At the line of scrimmage, between the defensive and offensive lines, they have about six or seven future CFL’ers. In the trenches, this will be as solid a team as we will ever see,” said Ptaszek.
The Dinos are certainly a difficult team to stop, leading the nation with 75 per cent success on third down conversions. The McMaster passing game will also face the stingiest secondary in the nation; the Dinos allow only 167.8 pass yards per game.