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Kingston connection strong to football team at St. F.X.

September 16, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

MONTREAL — Just because they’re the last remaining undefeated team in their conference, don’t start booking bands for the parade along West Street.

Never mind that a team that allowed an average of 39 points in losing its last seven games last year has allowed just 28 in its first two games this year — combined. It’s still far too early to be shopping for party favours.

Make no mistake, though. If the football fortunes at St. Francis Xavier University continue their turn for the better, you can be sure the unseen hand of high school and junior football in Kingston will have fingerprints all over the key to the trophy cabinet.

Now fewer than four Kingston products were in uniform Saturday when the X-Men came from behind — twice — to defeat the Concordia Stingers 35-18, and gain their second straight win to start the season.

A year ago, that match produced a 41-20 Concordia win.

“It’s worth the drive,” said Hayden Peters, the Inverary farm boy who landed in Antogonish via Sydenham High School and the Kingston Grenadiers. Peters was a freshman with the X-Men last year, a season when their 1-7 record was exceded for futility in all the land only by winless Alberta, which couldn’t beat anybody on the field, and Bishop’s, which couldn’t keep its players eligible long enough to savour the three wins it did manage.

“A 15-hour bus ride for a win is nice,” Peters said. “It’s a lot better than going home empty-handed.”

Sombre bus rides might become fewer and farther between for the three Kingston lads starting — safeties Peters and Chris Shibley and centre Will Lefort — and rookie backup linebacker and special teams dynamo Aaron Brownlee. With veteran defensive end Tyler Grant working to get off the disabled list and three other freshmen from Kingston — Kyle Sovie, Nate Kellar and Ryan Richardson —challenging to get on the dress roster on a team whose coaching staff includes two Kingston ex-pats, Bob Howes and Bob Mullen, the Limestone link with the X-Men indeed runs deep.

It is a connection X-Men coach Gary Waterman is at a loss to explain — “some good fortune,” he said — but one he embraces. Lefort, of Holy Cross, was the first to arrive, four years ago. Shibley, from Sydenham, came the year after that. What they had in common was a history with the junior Grenadiers.

“If they’ve gone through the Grenadiers organization we know they’re going to be hard-nosed kids and well coached,” Waterman said. “The ones we’ve got from Kingston have been great people. We know we’re going to get good character kids who are going to compete hard. That’s all you’re asking for.”

Peters and Brownlee were also Grenadiers, which brought Waterman into contact with Mullen, who by the time they were about to leave high school was coaching the Kingston varsity junior club. That led to Mullen, the former Queen’s defensive co-ordinator, being hired to do that job with the X-Men. In turn, that led Mullen to convince his old buddy Howes, a long-time Queen’s coaching colleague, to join him.

Whether the arrival of Mullen and Howes has been the catalyst for it, or merely part of a greater phenomenon, the biggest difference with these X-Men and the 2012 edition of the team, Peters says, is attitude.

“Talent-wise, I’d say we’re the same,” he said. “I wouldn’t even say there’s that much difference in the players we have but cohesiveness, coaching, the whole team atmosphere is a lot better. How we’re treated, how we’ve jelled together as a team — it’s just different.

“Young guys are leading who aren’t captains, they’re just stepping up and calming the team down when something gets out of hand. It’s no one person. It’s (throughout) the whole team.”

Shibley confirmed the change in attitude of which Peters speaks.

“This is my third year on the team and I can definitely feel a change,” he said. “I can’t really put my finger on what it is, exactly, but I can feel an attitude among the players and I think there’s a higher expectation from the coaches.

“A huge part of it is the new coaches. Bob Mullen and Bo Howes have done huge things, Bob, especially, for the defence. He just has brought in a whole new attitude … it’s a lot more relaxed. If you make a mistake, he’s not the type of guy who’s going to tear your ear off on the sidelines. He knows what to do. Guys have a lot more confidence in him, with his background at Queen’s and all he’s done there. Guys have a lot of respect for him and the system he’s installed.”

The respect is apparent, Shibley says, even among the fourth- and fifth-year players who learned at the knee of other defensive co-ordinators.

“When he walks into a room, he’s got such a presence about him. He definitely brings out the best in me and I think he brings out the best in a lot of players, in terms of their attitude.

“He’ll stop practice for five minutes to sort something out, settle everybody down. Sit the whole defence down and have a conversation whereas before it was a lot more rushed, maybe, we would get in reps, reps, reps. Mully’s more concerned with getting in quality reps, and making sure we’re learning from what we’re doing, rather than just going through the motions out there.

“Our record speaks for itself,” Shibley said, proudly. “We’re holding ourselves to a higher level of performance.”

Lefort says he’s enjoying his time with Howes, one of two men working with the offensive linemen. He also said he’s learning a lot.

“How can I not?” Lefort said. “The guy played umpteen years in the CFL, five Grey Cup rings, a Vanier Cup ring as a coach. The guy knows his stuff.

“He’s a crazy old guy. He likes to speak his mind, loves to yell at you, but he’s a fun guy, great to be around.”

Confident of his team’s prospects this year — “I feel we’re going to do pretty well this year” — Lefort is one of the team members enrolled at the school’s leadership academy, a non-credit program affiliated with the U.S.-based Jannsen Sport Leadership Centre.

“I just try and keep our offensive line cohesive, make sure everybody’s focused, make sure everyone’s doing the task at hand and not get too overwhelmed by whatever’s happening,” said Lefort, a third-year starter who expects to graduate this year and hopes to attend teachers college.

Howes said Lefort had to take a more active leadership role when veteran offensive lineman Jainyme DaSilveira was moved to defence, and he seems to be warming to it.

“Will’s a pretty focused guy but now he’s got to draw it out a bit now,” Howes said. “He’s a leader, anyway, but he’s such a quiet leader. Not that you need somebody yelling and screaming (but) he’s starting to get more outward in his mind.

“It’s a natural spot for it at centre. That’s his challenge and he’s getting into it.”

Waterman said the two newest members of his coaching staff have been “unbelievable.”

“The way they are with the kids is tremendous. They garner a lot of respect and they’ve got a lot of patience so it’s been helpful for us and great for the program.”

It’s that patience, and the attention Mullen and Howes pay to detail, that has endeared them to the athletes, Waterman said.

“They’re detail oriented, both of them. They hold the kids accountable to the detail. They have a great way of motivating people as well, and looking at the strengths of kids and trying to put them into positions to be successful.”

With respect to the case of DaSilveria, Waterman is reminded that in 1992, Mullen, short of defensive linemen, took a pair of reserve running backs, Rob Johnson and Jamie Lewin, and turned them into defensive ends on a national championship team.

“(With DaSilveria) they saw some things they thought could be helpful, they thought he could be very good at that position and he’s turned out to be a really good player there,” Waterman said. “We were all in agreement but Bob’s got a knack for seeing something in (a player) and saying, ‘I think I can do something with that,’ and then getting them to believe it. That’s a special characteristic to have.”

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