Laurier’s always in the game, thanks to defence

laurier d
Photo: Mathew McCarthy, Waterloo Region Record

Christine Rivet
Waterloo Region Record

WATERLOO — You might not have heard much about one of the finest defensive co-ordinators in the country because under the radar is exactly where Ron VanMoerkerke likes to fly.

He does, however, poke his head out from time to time.

“I don’t like the limelight. The attention should go to the players,” insisted Wilfrid Laurier University’s defensive wizard, the antithesis of his bold, brash and in-your-face defence.

Cool and in control, VanMoerkerke has quietly pulled the levers on the Golden Hawk defence for a dozen years, winning a Vanier Cup in 2005.

VanMoerkerke, 47, is the longest-serving defensive co-ordinator in the 11-team Ontario University Athletics football conference and almost certainly its most respected.

His portfolio has expanded to include the title of associate head coach, and his expertise has long been reflected on the scoresheet.

So when head coach Michael Faulds was handed the keys to the Hawks three seasons ago, his immediate priority was to keep Laurier’s defensive coaching staff intact.

Faulds was a former record-setting quarterback and offensive co-ordinator for Laurier’s conference rivals, the Western Mustangs and the York Lions, respectively.

So he, more than most, knew exactly what Laurier had in VanMoerkerke, also the head of the geography department at Eastwood Collegiate.

“I’ve always had a ton of respect for Laurier’s defence,” said Faulds whose unranked 4-4 Hawks visit the No. 6 McMaster Marauders in Hamilton for a conference quarter-final Saturday at 1 o’clock.

“There have been a lot of great players come through Laurier on their way to CFL careers. As (an opposing) player and coach, you always knew a stiff challenge waited for you.”

VanMoerkerke’s reputation for fashioning championship-calibre defences out of raw material is known far and wide in Canadian university football circles.

“Ron is a real cerebral guy,” said one of his closest friends, Kevin MacNeill, defensive co-ordinator for the Guelph Gryphons.

“He knows football. He has a passion for excellence,” added MacNeill, who played linebacker at Laurier under VanMoerkerke’s tutelage and later worked as an assistant with him for eight years.

“And Ron doesn’t compartmentalize that success. He’s a great teacher, a great husband and a great father.”

Through their ebbs and flows, the one constant for Laurier football has been its defence. It remains the club’s backbone even while the Hawk offence wobbles.

All-Canadians come and go, like the two CFL first-rounders the Hawks’ defence lost this past off-season, Chris Ackie and Ese Mrabure-Ajufo, but the purple and gold machine rolls on.

“There’s no secret magic to our defence’s success,” said Faulds. “The coaches work at it really hard.”

The beauty of Laurier’s tough, aggressive D is that it comes at opponents from all directions.

Ranked No. 4 in the conference this year for yards surrendered per game (431.8), the Hawk defence has produced a Canadian university-leading five touchdowns this year.

“Every position has sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries this season,” said Faulds. “We are not a one-headed monster.”

Thus far, a constellation of emerging stars has led the Hawk defence. Linebackers Nakas Onyeka and Brandon Calver along with linemen Kwaku Boateng and Asante Mizan have left their marks, as have all the starters.

“We attack each week the exact same way,” said VanMoerkerke, a former all-star linebacker at Laurier who considers ex-Hawks coach Gary Jeffries his mentor.

“We set a game plan based on preparation. We teach it to our players. We put it on the whiteboard. We walk through it on the field. We film it. We correct it. And we do it all over again.”

And the Hawks’ offence takes great comfort from their brothers on defence.

“If you need to punt the ball, you just know our defence will make a big stop and we will get the ball back. You can really count on that,” said Faulds.

VanMoerkerke’s defences have endured even through lean recruiting years, mostly through hard work.

“When you have great effort and energy on defence, you can be hard to play against,” VanMoerkerke said.

The father of 11-year-old Grace and Austin, 9, said he counts on the support of his wife Karen who keeps the home fires burning during football season.

Despite his obsession with excellence, VanMoerkerke seldom vents his frustration on the sideline.

“If the plan doesn’t work and we weren’t able to stop anybody, I blame myself.”

Mac presents a special challenge, VanMoerkerke explained because the Marauders do so many things so well.

“Their offence is just so smooth. They are always getting positive plays. They’ve been to three of the last four Vanier Cups. That doesn’t happen by accident.”

And with that, VanMoerkerke ducks back into his rabbit hole.

“I was hoping this (story) would be about something other than me,” he told a reporter this week.

“I get all the attention and fulfilment I need by watching our players make plays.”

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