By Curtis Wolff
The scene will not be a welcoming one.
Halfway across the country, on national television and in front of up to 19,500 loud and hostile Rouge et Or fans at Telus Stadium in Quebec City, lining up against an incredibly accomplished University of Laval football program that breeds quality university football players like Alberta breeds beef. At stake is an undefeated season and the Vanier Cup — the most coveted trophy in Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
Should the youthful and surprising Dinos be intimidated?
“They are going to realize that these kids from Laval aren’t from Mars,” said Dinos head coach Blake Nill. “They’re young men just like ourselves. They put their pants on the same way as we do.”
Hardly an intergalactic foe. Or even a mysterious one at that.
Consider that these two last teams standing — both boasting perfect 11–0 records — were practice buddies a mere 13 weeks ago during the Dinos’s preseason excursion to Quebec.
“We practiced twice with them, and we played [one] game,” said Nill. “In the practices, we did very well.”
The results of the preseason match that they played — a convincing 32–3 victory for Laval — seem to tell a different story, but not necessarily the whole one. The exhibition contest was actually a tale of four teams, with the Dinos starters facing the Rouge et Or starters in the first half, while the backups took over for both teams in the second half.
“We competed very well when our starters were against their starters,” said Dinos quarterback Andrew Buckley, who at the age of 20 is five years younger than former Dinos QB Erik Glavic was during the team’s last Vanier Cup appearance in 2010. “The score sort of showed an uneven matchup, but there was a lot to take out of it from our end of things.”
Indeed the score at the end of the first half was a less lopsided 9–3 for Laval, with the Dinos coming tantalizingly close to taking the lead.
“We could have easily scored a touchdown at one point,” recalls Nill, who understands that the task will be harder with the amped-up Vanier Cup atmosphere. “We didn’t, but we played very well. What my guys know is when they go there, we are going to have a hostile-type environment. They know there’s going to be a lot of things they’re going to have to overcome before the first kickoff is made.”
Dealing with crowd noise during the snap is a key component of high-level football, one that the Dinos will be out of practice with due to playing in the relatively reserved stadiums of Canada West.
“We’ve got to stay composed in there. It’s going to be a crazy crowd,” said receiver Chris Dobko, who will be playing in his final CIS game. “I’ve been there a couple times and there’s going to be 20,000 people. If you want to play a college game anywhere in Canada, it’s definitely the place you want to be.”
No one on the Dinos is more familiar with Quebec football than receiver Eli Bouka. The Montrealer is a graduate of the province’s CEGEP system, which acts as a pre-university year for students and gives athletes an extra year to hone their skills under university-level coaching. The second-year receiver is thrilled for the opportunity to play for the Vanier Cup in his home province.
“Personally, it’s one of my dreams — I’ve always wanted to play Laval in the national championships,” said Bouka, who knows many of the Rouge et Or players from his CEGEP days. “It’s a team that you have to respect. You have to play 100 per cent all the time.”
The Dinos have historically had tough luck against Laval, losing the 2011 Mitchell Bowl to the Rouge et Or 41–10 and losing the 2010 Vanier Cup 29–2. However, Nill feels that history won’t be weighing too heavily on the minds of his young team, many of whom weren’t around for those losses.
“These kids don’t have the history associated with some of the other programs I’ve had,” said Nill. “They don’t understand. Right now, a lot of them have never lost. That is something to be said. They just don’t know about losing yet. They prepare and they assume that they are going to have success, and the fact that they may not doesn’t dwell on them yet.”
This clean-sheet attitude is in stark contrast to recent Dinos teams who have failed to capture the Vanier Cup.
“A couple of my programs in the past that were loaded with future pros and all-Canadians, I think at some point it starts to dwell on on you, that you know what, we better win this, and there’s a small window,” Nill continues. “I think the window for these guys is so large still, that they think, ‘Let’s just keeping running with it, and sooner or later we’re going to have the success that we require.’ ”
It’s a sentiment that the fifth-year Dobko has considered as well.
“You could almost argue that the past couple years we let the way things had finished in past years affect us going into some of the bigger games,” said Dobko. “None of these guys were there for that.”
“They don’t really know what it was like to be there before, so they don’t really know what they’ve got themselves into.”