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Different kind of year begins Sunday for Gaels

August 23, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

For sure, Billy McPhee says, it’s going to be different this year.

Different, in this case, isn’t a synonym for bad, the Queen’s Golden Gaels quarterback insists, even for a fellow who said good-bye to so many teammates and returns for his final season of intercollegiate ball practically having to introduce himself before he calls his first play in the huddle.

“It’s weird,” McPhee said. “There’s definitely a sense of having to get acquainted, but that’s what the summer is for.

“The interesting thing is we’re not young, we’re inexperienced. There’s a lot of third- and fourth-year guys who just haven’t seen the field yet because we’ve been so old for so long.”

It’s that dimension, the curiosity surrounding how close those players are to being capable of making contributions at the intercollegiate level, that makes the prospect intriguing for those around the football team. There’s a bunch of players who have been waiting patiently in the wings, practising daily for two years or more as members of the scout squad, whose sole purpose is to take their lumps from the first team in those aforementioned practices.

They’re keen, McPhee observed, and unlikely to want to squander the long-awaited opportunity.

“The way I’m looking at it is, look, those (departed) guys were amazing players, but each and every one of them at one point got hurt, and somebody else had to replace them,” said McPhee, who no longer has five of the linemen, five receivers or two running backs at his disposal who were available a year ago.

“Yes, they’re absent and they’re not here to provide leadership but we have guys who can fill their roles adequately, if not better than they did.”

Better than, say, the perennial all-stars on the line; better than receivers Scott Macdonell or Giovanni Aprile, who are now in the CFL, or Aaron Gazendam, about to begin studying medicine at the University of Toronto? Better than Ryan Granberg, the 1,000-yard back?

“Because they’re a bit green behind the ears, they’re a bit more willing to learn,” McPhee said of his younger teammates. “Once you get to a certain year in your career you’re kind of happy with where you’re at. There’s going to be no stagnation of the young guys. They’re always going to be hungry and want to learn and get better, whereas maybe when you’re a bit older that may not happen.”

It’s the sort of phenomenon that led legendary coach Doug Hargreaves once to opine that fifth-year guys can be “a pain in the ass.” Of course, exceptions to that rule resulted in national championships in 1992 and 2009 but McPhee understands the reasoning.

“It may be a bit more difficult (for a veteran player),” he said. “As much as you’re listening to Coach, you may be (thinking), ‘OK, Coach, sure,’ but the young guys do listen to every word Coach has to say, and I think that will add value.”

The Gaels will get to test McPhee’s hypothesis beginning Sunday afternoon, when they host the Concordia Stingers in an exhibition game at Richardson Stadium. Game time is 1 o’clock.

“Nothing can get you in shape for a game like a game, so it’s beneficial for a team like ours to have a chance to play Concordia,” McPhee said. It’s time to see what exactly may be the implications on the field for this far less veteran group.

“We’re not really lacking in terms of athletes,” McPhee said. “It’s just a matter of understanding the game, whether that’s understanding how we want certain routes run or even blocking assignments.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of going back to basics, and football’s not a complicated game, so if we have to pull things back a week or two, it’s not the end of the world.”

The implications in terms of leadership are different. McPhee says he’s fully aware, as a senior, of what’s expected of him in that regard, but that, too, will evolve, he expects.

“We’ve already had a players-only meeting for senior guys and we’ve discussed our role on the team, and how different it is for this year, as opposed to last year,” he said. “It was beneficial because the real leaders stepped up.

“There were guys who had a lot to say and there were guys who were a little more reserved, and that’s a good thing because you don’t want to have a battle of leadership. We’ve all been on teams where there’s been a fight for who wants to be captain and it’s not about who gets to be at the coin flip. It’s about who’s going to make plays for us, who’s going to say the right thing at the right time.”

McPhee said he’s looking forward to being one of those guys.

“If I’m being honest with myself I really haven’t had this opportunity since my fifth year of high school,” he said. “It has been quite a while since every word I say will be listened to that intently. That’s not to say that last year or the year prior I wasn’t looked at as a player that would help lead our team on the field but I think off the field my actions will speak louder than words.

“That comes with the territory. That’s why I decided to come to Queen’s, to a city like Kingston where the spotlight is on you a bit more than, say, Toronto or Hamilton. It’s exciting. That’s why you want to play.”

The Stingers come to town with a new coach, Mickey Donovan, a 40-year-old Concordia alumnus who will be making his head-coaching debut. A two-time all-Canadian and the 2004 President’s Trophy winner as the outstanding defensive player in Canada, Donovan coached the linebackers at Western for four years starting in 2007 and in 2011 he was named assistant head coach at McGill.

The Stingers, 0-8 in Quebec confrerence play a year ago, haven’t had a winning season since 2008, with a record since then of 13-29. Their prize recruit is Danial White, all-state 5A high school quarterback from Ashland, Ore., who completed 59 per cent of his passes last year. In leading his team to the Oregon state semifinals, he threw for more than 2,200 yards in 13 games, for 26 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

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