WATERLOO — The freshman walked into the first training camp with his new team and searched for his name on one of the posted depth charts.
It was nowhere to be found.
Mario Pineda recalls the reality jolt like it happened yesterday, saying it played a role in his rise to a starting position with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks football team.
“I remember walking into the first meeting of my first training camp (in August of 2017), that’s where they post the depth charts, and my name wasn’t on any of them. That told me I had to start at the bottom and work my way up,” said Pineda, a second-year linebacker out of Jacob Hespeler Secondary School.
“So that’s what I did. I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am and I am going to work my butt off to stay here.”
The fact Pineda made it to that first training camp at Laurier is a story in itself.
The undersized defender (five-foot-10, 210 pounds) said he received lukewarm interest from university scouts in his fifth and final year of high school and was ready to commit his future to the Toronto Varsity Blues in January of 2017.
Pineda’s heart, however, belonged to Laurier, a program that had showed a passing interest in him.
He made a last-ditch appeal to Golden Hawks head coach Michael Faulds in February of last year and was rewarded with an invitation to join the team. It was made official shortly thereafter during a signing ceremony at Jacob Hespeler.
Pineda wasn’t certain he’d even dress during his first year at Laurier but did enough in training camp to earn a spot on special teams and serve as Branden Calver’s backup on defence. He saw his first defensive reps against Waterloo, the fourth game of the regular season, and was thrown into a starting role against York and Guelph when Calver went down with injury.
Pineda was rewarded for his play at season’s end by being named to the Ontario University Athletics all-rookie team and earning rookie of the year honours for Laurier’s football team.
He had exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own.
“We knew he would have the knowledge (of the Laurier defence) but we didn’t know how smart of a player he was,” said Faulds.
“He’s a gritty player, he’s a sure tackler, he sees the field well, he communicates well and, in his own right, he’s a bit of a leader as well.”
Pineda’s knowledge of the Golden Hawks defence can be attributed to his time with the Cambridge Lions varsity team, a squad that was coached by former Laurier players Anthony Maggiacomo and Jesse Alexander.
This season, the overachieving Pineda has picked up where he left off and earned a starting job out of training camp. In the Hawks’ first four games, he’s recorded eight tackles and recovered one fumble for a defence that has surrendered 23.5 points per game, fifth best in the OUA.
In addition to a strong work ethic, Pineda’s attention to detail has served him well.
“One of my strengths is knowing the playbook very well, knowing where everyone is supposed to be, knowing my assignments,” he said.
“Sometimes I have mental busts, but it’s very rare that I do. That’s what helps me to be successful, I’m usually in the right places to make the play.”
Pineda’s size and determination has led to comparisons to Toronto Argonauts linebacker Nakas Onyeka, who arrived at Laurier with modest expectations and became an OUA all-star, U Sports all-Canadian and played an integral part in the Golden Hawks’ run to a Yates Cup championship in 2016.
Pineda hopes similar accolades are in his future but for now is focused on Saturday’s game against the Guelph Gryphons (2-3). Laurier (2-2), No. 8 in the U Sports rankings, has lost two straight heading into the crucial contest with games against No. 1 Western and No. 5 Carleton on the horizon.
“This is the biggest game of the year because of the situation we’ve put ourselves,” said Pineda.
Faulds, who said his team has looked strong in practice, offers a similar take on Saturday’s tilt.
“It’s as much like a playoff game as your can get in the regular season,” he said. ” Guelph is desperate at 2-3 and we’re desperate at 2-2, so there’s definitely a lot on the line.”
Meanwhile, the Waterloo Warriors will attempt to return to the win column Saturday against the York Lions. The Warriors are coming off a 67-7 loss to Western and will give their playoff hopes a huge boost with a win at York’s Alumni Field.