I knew nothing about OUA and CIS football at the beginning of the McMaster Vanier run. I tuned in to a Western-Queen’s game if it was on the Score but that is about it. My high school didn’t have a football team and my friends didn’t play. I had no clue about the league. Like all first years, I went to that Welcome Week game and generally checked out for the rest of the season. Sure, it wasn’t fair to bury the football program so early but they looked terrible in that opening game against Western. The Mustangs ran all over Ron Joyce, but literally and figuratively. Tyler Varga ran for 149 yards and four scores, plowing through defenders and doing whatever he wanted. Mac seemed average so, I moved on until the Yates Cup, and that’s when things clicked.
Kyle Quinlan, Mike DiCroce and Chris Pezzetta just throttled Western. Quinlan threw for 275 yards, four touchdowns while rushing for 105. DiCroce took a pass 102 yards for a score and Pez ran for 151 yards. It was a thorough takedown, and you saw how good these guys were.
The Uteck Bowl was a little less convincing. Down 14-0, out East against a well-supported Acadia Axemen team, Mac seemed to be out of sorts before the offence executed long, tactical drives. Quinlan took the squad on drives of 63, 57, 90, 73, and 35 yards to put the Maroon and Grey up 31-14 at half. The drives were quick, too. The longest drive shaved only 2:25 off the clock. The second half was a formality and the Marauders were heading to the Vanier Cup for the first time since 1967, and they were playing a perennial powerhouse in the Laval Rouge et Or. As a first year, it is hard to understand what is going on. You can understand the historical significance of the moment, that is easy. But you can’t really understand the accomplishment, because success is all you know as a naive first-year kid. Yeah, it was totally cool to see our team succeed, but when you haven’t seen them really fail, it just doesn’t feel the same.
I made a mistake, though. The weekend of the Vanier, I was going back to my hometown to see a friend who was home for Thanksgiving break. She was attending Mississippi Valley State University on a soccer scholarship and I wanted to hear about her experiences with Division I sports. The plan was to grab coffee at Starbucks. Instead, I ended up glued to my phone to get updates about a team I didn’t really care about until two weeks prior. And you would think that the increasing lead for Mac would have deterred me from refreshing the Twitter feed, but it was so unbelievable, I had to keep checking.
At least I was vindicated in the disbelief. The Rouge et Or charged back through a punt return touchdown and a pick-six, making it a one-score game. My friend and I rushed home to watch the end of the game — for better or worse. It looked like Laval was going to thrash us and validate all the talk before the game about how Mac’s chances were incredibly low. Instead, we were treated to televised chaos.
Back and forth, the teams trade scores in the fourth quarter until Mac drives from their own seven yard line to set Tyler Crapigna up for a winning field goal. A 30-yard kick, even if it was on an angle, is well-within Crapigna’s capabilities. Instead, he misses it and Laval escapes from the endzone to avoid the rouge. The teams head for overtime, and McMaster supporters likely make tracks to the fridge in search of liquor.
Agony was all I felt. I know Mac was hanging in there, but my pessimism took over. It was like watching a football team just bleed out and you thought that there was no stopping the Rouge et Or, a team that is no stranger to the grand stage.
Mac takes first possession in overtime and Brad Fochesato hauls in a 26-yard strike to give the Marauders a touchdown advantage. In a vacuum, that sentence reads positively. Football teams that score a touchdown on the first possession have a significantly higher winning percentage, for obvious reasons — a touchdown is harder to score than a field goal. But Mac was hemorrhaging points and the Rouge et Or offence had already put up 31 points in the half. It seemed they had Mac figured out.
The Marauder defence had done everything they needed to in the possession. After a Laval penalty, it was second and 18. Laval went deep, to the endzone, and Adam Thibault — now a Calgary Stampeder — hauled in the catch after bobbling it a few times. After a half full of gut-punching plays, for Thibault to catch that felt like it was par for the course. It was a spectacular catch, but Laval was playing so damn well, it was hard to be surprised by their luck. Off to a second and final overtime.
Laval’s first play of the second overtime went incomplete. Again, this is something that would lead a person to be confident but Mac had just conceded a touchdown in a more favourable situation. This time, Bruno Prud’homme telegraphed the pass and McMaster’s Steven Ventresca picked it off. It was one of those interceptions where the defensive back read the play so well, he caught the ball in stride, running north-south and capable of gaining yardage. After an initial burst, he ran into opposing players and threw the ball across the field — a brilliant play. In overtime, if you force a turnover, you don’t get the ball back where the play ends. You get it on the opponents 35, unless you score a touchdown.
Joey Cupido received the cross-field pass and ran it another 27 yards, adding on to Ventresca’s sizable 29 yard gain. Mac would continue to pass the ball, but the team would be held up at the Laval 31. Bring on the offence.
Quinlan runs the ball five yards, creating an optimal scenario — second and five from the Laval 30 and a field goal would win you the game. That distance is still a little long for a field goal, so the team was gunning for a first down to get some more yards. Pezzetta takes the hand-off and only gains a couple yards. A makeable field goal but you would like it to be closer. Except, there was a flag on the play. Illegal procedure, Laval. Ten yards, Mac first down. The Marauders could run the ball for two plays and give Crapigna a shot at redemption and a spot in history. Quinlan hands it off to Pezzetta two times and they gain seven yards.
Crapigna lines up for the 20-yard kick, minutes after missing a 30-yard boot that would have avoided all this mess. The kick went through without a doubt. For the first time in school history, McMaster had won the Vanier Cup. If that summary feels brief, that’s an accurate reflection of how it felt live.
If you were a student at the time, and that’s rather unlikely considering it was three years ago, you remember where you were when they won. It was a watershed moment for the football program that had not been on the radar of casual fans since the early 2000’s. This weekend, Mac has a chance to recreate that moment for a new generation of students. You aren’t guaranteed to get a game as good as this one — TSN dubbed this the “Best Game Ever.” But you’re going to witness something important, something worth remembering. Good luck finding that anywhere else on a Saturday afternoon.