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Weary of losing to McMaster, Gaels get first big test Monday

August 30, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Touts might tell you it’s not a good idea to bet against the team from the blue-collar town on Labour Day. It may not always be that simple but it would have been sound advice two years ago, when the Queen’s Golden Gaels last hosted the McMaster Marauders in their home-opening football game.

The winner that day went on to win the Vanier Cup.

It wasn’t the Gaels.

Neither was it the Gaels when the teams met the year before, either time. Or in the playoffs, later in 2011. Or last year, for that matter.

“Our kids are highly motivated,” Queen’s coach Pat Sheahan said about Monday’s match with the Marauders at the remodelled Richardson Stadium.

“They’re all painfully aware of our record over the past three seasons against this team.”

Players have to have been around five years to remember what it was like to savour victory over McMaster. “It was annoying losing to them twice a year for two years,” said veteran guard Derek Morris, one of the few who have done so.

“Those scars are still there. The guys in Billy’s year haven’t beaten Mac since they’ve been here.”

That would be Queen’s quarterback Billy McPhee, who, just to add another hue to the palette for this gloomy picture, happens to come from Burlington, the town folks in Hamilton view as their poor cousin across the bay.

When the teams last met on Labour Day the Marauders pretty much had their way. They won 26-2, and the only points the Gaels scored McMaster gave them, in a safety touch.

For Sheahan that memory remains vivid, not so much for the outcome, but for the nature of the game. He suspected at the time he was watching a championship team in waiting.

“What we proved that day is we weren’t quite at that level,” he said. “There’s a certain savoir faire that championship teams have, you can see it right away. They all seem to understand what to do. They don’t get rattled when you make plays.

“We had some opportunities in that game to make plays but never seemed to make the right one. Threw it here when the receiver was wide open there. At the end of it, it seemed like nothing went our way. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you play against a good team. They can make you play that way.”

To be fair, the Gaels played that way themselves not long ago, winning five straight against McMaster through their own championship season of 2009.

Sheahan remains respectful. “You’re talking about a team that’s been to the national championship game two years running,” he said. “They’ve been hit by graduation like a lot of other teams but there’s still a good nucleus of kids there who have been in big games and learned how to compete.”

He also understands the cyclical nature of the game, and quietly nurtures the notion that this may be his team’s turn.

“Our kids are confident,” he said. “They look around the room, they see that there doesn’t look to be any apparent weaknesses. There are no huge gaping holes in our team this year and that’s a great place to start, though you still have to show up and play.

“There are a number of reasons why we want to come out and have a good game on Monday. We haven’t beaten this team in three seasons. We have them at home. I don’t think the situation could be any better for us to come with a big effort.”

The teams are comparable on many levels. Both have players capable of making big plays, each team has a solid defence and each has a fourth-year quarterback. “(The years) that we beat them, we beat them because we pushed them around a little bit,” Sheahan said. “Over the last couple of years the opposite has been true.

“It’s time to see who brings what to the game. One of the frustrations we’ve had playing this team over the last couple of years is we really haven’t come up with what I would consider an A-1 effort.”

A case in point was last year’s contest in Hamilton, when McMaster scored 26 points in the first half and Queen’s scored 17 in the second half of a game the Marauders won 33-20.

“In every football game, it doesn’t matter how good the opponent, there’s opportunities,” he said. “It took us a while to get the offence rolling then, all of a sudden, when we had put ourselves at a significant deficit, we came out and moved the football seemingly with a certain amount of ease.

“I guarantee you those opportunities were there all game. We just didn’t have enough poise and the most important 10-letter word in sports is confidence. There’s a certain edge that championship teams have. In 2011 they had that edge. They never seemed to get flustered, they never felt that they were ever going to lose the game.

“It takes a while for a team to get to that level. They’ve been there for the last couple of years.”

No less an authority on whether Queen’s may now be at that point may be McMaster coach Stefan Ptaszek.

“We’re getting ready for a very good football team,” he said Thursday. “We’re busy.”

He conceded Queen’s may have an advantage Monday, in at least a couple of respects.

“The more senior you are the better it is to get some of these tough battles done sooner rather than later,” he said. “It’s probably to their benefit that we’re playing so early because we have a few more young kids in the lineup than they do, but so be it.

“I’d also rather be playing them here. That’s a tough place to steal a win.”

Queen’s presents an opponent with many challenges, Ptaszek said.

“As always, defensively they’re rock solid. They were not getting into uncomfortable situations, even a little bit, against York. The (defensive) line is one of the best we’ll face. It allows them to sit back and force teams to execute because the front four can get pressure all by themselves.

“Special teams is an absolute weapon, and a scary one at that, and it’s big-play offence.”

You can’t discount losing three all-Canadians, two national award winners and three other conference all-stars to graduation — as the Marauders have  — but even so, Ptaszek believes his team remains a formidable opponent.

“I think we have one of the more deep and complete receiving corps,” he said. “It’s not just Mike DiCroce for us. We’ve got several kids who can make plays and (quarterback) Marshall Ferguson can distribute the ball so we’ll put some stress on that secondary.

“Their big play (offence) and throwing into our secondary comes with a few more challenges. I think our secondary is one of the best in the country and McPhee will have to be very, very sharp.”

Game time Monday is 2 p.m.

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