Laurier geared up for gridiron grind

20170813 - Laurier Football Camp 2017_-306Josh Brown
Waterloo Region Record 

WATERLOO — It’s hunting season on the gridiron in Waterloo Region.

And football teams at Laurier and the University of Waterloo can feel the targets on their backs.

Of course the added attention comes for very different reasons.

As defending Yates Cup champions, the Golden Hawks are the team to beat; while the Warriors are considered an easy mark by some after posting back-to-back winless seasons.

But both clubs are embracing the challenge.

“Everyone is going to circle Laurier on their schedule and we’re going to get everyone’s best effort,” said Golden Hawks coach Michael Faulds, whose squad is coming off an impressive 7-1 campaign.

“We respect that. We put the most pressure on ourselves. I tell the guys flat out that we expect and need to win a Vanier Cup. That puts a bull’s eye on them.”

Training camp officially kicked off Thursday with some housekeeping items, while on-field practices ran Friday.

More than 100 players took to the turf at Laurier’s University Stadium in preparation for the season ahead. The team returns a veteran bunch that is missing just five regulars from last year’s starting lineup.

The most notable omissions are defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng, linebacker Nakas Onyeka and offensive lineman Brett Golding, who are all in the CFL.

But the Hawks are deep in experienced backups ready to step in.

“It’s a battle-tested group, but there is a reason you play the games,” said Faulds, who admits the days of catching teams off-guard are gone.

Laurier played sleeper last season and came into the year with a reputation as a middle-of-the-pack squad. That changed fast as the Golden Hawks soared to the top of the OUA standings and finished tied for first with Western University.

The Hawks had a memorable playoff run highlighted by a fourth-quarter rally that saw the team overcome a 21-point deficit in about eight minutes, to stun the Mustangs in the Yates Cup final — their first in 11 years — before dropping a one-sided affair to the Laval Rouge et Or in the Uteck Bowl.

That loss still stings.

“No one reminds them of that more than me,” said Faulds. “You see a guy with a Yates Cup T-shirt on and I’m very quick to remind them of 36-6, Laval over Laurier.

“I want them to be proud that they won the Ontario championship. We’ve come a long way and that’s a big accomplishment, but it’s important that they recognize that there are games beyond that.”

For now, expectations are not as bold at the University of Waterloo — and for good reason.

The Warriors have been in rebuild mode since alumnus Chris Bertoia took over as coach two years back.

And it has been a tough go.

The team has yet to win for their new boss and produced a mere 9.6 points per game, while relinquishing 54.4 points to opponents last season.

But there is hope at Warrior Field. Bertoia’s initial recruits are now three years in and, while still young, are more than ready to celebrate on the field.

“We need to turn the corner and we need to start winning some football games,” said Bertoia, a former Warriors offensive lineman, who played in four consecutive Yates Cups in his day.

“Once they taste that victory and realize they can do it, I think it’s going to be contagious and we’re going to catch some momentum.”

The mood was positive earlier this week as 105 players — 88 of them in third year or under — arrived at training camp. The team’s bumper recruiting class are all academically eligible to play and returnees clearly spent some serous time in the gym over the summer.

“It’s like Christmas in August,” said Bertoia. “There is high energy. The kids are walking around with their chest out and chin up. They are confident and I think that’s an important piece.”

The statistics haven’t been kind to the Warriors, but the coaching staff has seen some encouraging progress. The team is strong, works hard and the youngsters have more in-game experience than most of their foes.

“We’re a dynamic team,” said Bertoia. “Everyone is cautiously optimistic.”

Laurier opens the season at home against the University of Toronto, while Waterloo hits the road to face the University of Windsor. Both games are Aug. 27 at 1 p.m.

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