One victory away from football gold

Mark Bryson
Waterloo Region Record

They are the favourites and they are the villains.

Kitchener native Alex Pigozzo and his Canadian teammates are bracing for a chilly reception Sunday at Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium, where Canada will face the host nation in the gold-medal game of the International Federation of American Football world U19 championship. Canada is the reigning champion and will be favoured to win against Mexico, which shocked the United States 33-6 in a semifinal game Wednesday. The Canadians moved on with a difficult 28-22 victory over Japan after cruising to an easy win over Sweden in their first game of the six-team event that also features an entry from Australia.

“It should be a cool experience. I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re coming in as underdogs and we’re certainly not going to have any sort of home-field advantage,” said the personable Pigozzo in a telephone interview Thursday.

“What we have to do is go out there, ignore the distractions, do our thing and get out with a gold medal. It will be cool to play the actual home team in a championship game.”

Pigozzo hopes Sunday’s title game goes as well as his fondest football memory to date, when the bruising blocker played a key role for the Resurrection Phoenix squad that defeated the Etobicoke Collegiate Mustangs to win the all-Ontario (OFSAA) championship in the fall of 2015. The following summer, he played for the Cambridge Lions team that crushed the Kingston Grenadiers 54-28 to win the Ontario Varsity Football League championship.

He spent one more season with the Phoenix before moving on to play for the Wilfrid Laurier University Golden Hawks last year. Pigozzo dressed for two games in his freshman campaign and hopes for an expanded role when the Golden Hawks open their Ontario University Athletics season on Aug. 26 against the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

For now, the focus is on helping Canada win its third world U19 championship since the tournament’s inception in 2009. The United States won the inaugural event, Canada won in 2012, the Americans won two years later and Canada won the 2016 tournament in China. Canada and the United States have competed in all four previous gold-medal games, while Mexico has claimed back-to-back bronze medals.

Pigozzo, a six-foot-four, 280-pound offensive lineman, has seen plenty of action as Canada’s sixth man, rotating in at tackle and guard. The competition has been stiff, he said, and dealing with the altitude of Mexico City has added to the challenge.

“The heat hasn’t been bad, it’s hotter in Kitchener, but the altitude is definitely noticeable,” he said. “After grinding out a couple of series on offence, you really need to hit the water on the sideline.”

Overall, the experience has been amazing.

New friends have been made, additional football techniques have been learned and players have had the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing in and around the Mexican capital.

“One of the coolest things was walking into the stadium for the first time, experiencing what Olympians would have experienced (in 1968). That was very cool,” he said.

The Canadian team will fly home Monday and Pigozzo, after a two-week break, will turn his attention to the next chapter of his football career. The Golden Hawks, whose season ended last year with an ugly 75-32 loss to the Western Mustangs in the OUA title game, will gather for training camp on Aug. 9 and will no doubt use that setback as motivation for the coming season.

“I’m looking forward to being back with the team and working hard. I want to dress the entire season and compete for a starting job,” he said.

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