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With a load off their shoulders, Gaels are ready for Varsity Blues

October 11, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

As the Queen’s Golden Gaels began to prepare for their first meaningless football game in 10 years—meaningless in that no matter what they do, they can’t make the Ontario University Athletics football playoffs—coach Pat Sheahan stood in front of his players early this week and said a few words.

“It was very compelling,” defensive back Yann Dika-Balotoken said.

Sheahan spoke of the seniors, and how most of them will be embarking on the last football games of their lives. He spoke, Dika-Balotoken said, of the importance of them playing as well as they possibly can, to make their last memories good ones.

Then Sheahan turned to the underclassmen in the room.

“He said it’s our duty as teammates,” Dika-Balotoken said, “to make sure that we help them to do that.”

That’s the kind of incentive the Gaels take to the field this afternoon when they host the Toronto Blues.

“This game is very emotional,” Dika-Balotoken continued. “You play for the love of the game. You play for the love of your teammates.

“At this point we’re just playing to be able to wear our team colours proudly.”

Since 2000, the Gaels have played just one game whose outcome didn’t matter—the final game of the 2004 season, when Queen’s finished 2-6 and were eliminated at McMaster on the penultimate game of its season.

This year, the Gaels found themselves 0-2 after they forfeited their season-opening victory at Windsor and ever since then have struggled amid the pressure of each game having serious playoff implications. No amount of finger-crossing during their bye week last Saturday could prevent them from being formally eliminated, when Laurier and Ottawa each won their fourth game of the year, becoming the fifth and sixth teams in the league to reach that plateau.

Only six teams get invited to the playoff party and with just three games left, Queen’s could do no better than 3-5. November held no promise other than the opportunity to get an early jump on studying for mid-terms.

By all accounts, however, practices have been spirited this week, due in no small part to the pressure of having to win being replaced by the relative tranquility of simply wanting to win.

“That was something I was talking to some of the guys about,” fifth-year receiver Alex Carroll said. “There’s still pressure to win games but, realistically, we’re loose. We’re relaxed.

“We’re confident, of course, but there’s not that weight of if you don’t win this game you’re out of the playoffs. We’re just kind of focused on winning. I don’t think our mentality has changed at all, there’s a lot less pressure on us. We just have to go out there and have fun.”

Carroll, who has never missed the playoffs, allowed that it is a “weird situation.”

“It goes through your head: ‘What are we really playing for here?’” he said. “At the end of the day the guys are hungry for wins. We’re a bunch of proud guys. We came to Queen’s to win games. Speaking for myself, I’m embarrassed the way the season has gone. Just for pride, going out and finishing my career with three wins is important to us.”

Dika-Balotoken, one of just two veteran members of the Queen’s defence, said without the pressure of looming playoffs, the team has been able to relax during practice.

“Everybody’s able to take a little bit more risk,” he said. “You can’t play conservative football.”

He used the Gaels’ last game, a 28-19 loss at McMaster two weeks ago, as an example.

“People were all mentally sound,” he said. “We all knew what we were doing. The only difference was they were making plays. That’s because they weren’t playing conservatively, and we were, a little bit.

“We were in the right spot in the right time, (but) at the end of the day, when the ball’s in the air, you have to make a play. When the ball carrier is in front of you, you have to make the tackle.

“It will come in time. That’s why I’m not too worried.”

It’s something Dika-Balotoken believes strongly because he’s starting to see the requisite collectivity in the play of the new players.

“You don’t get to know a person just because you decide to get to know him,” he said.

“One thing I’ve realized in the intercollegiate game, everything’s very emotional. With a team where the majority of players are new starters, it’s not because they’re bad players or anything like that. They’re very talented. It’s hard because they don’t know each other, how the others will react to a given situation.

“There’s going to come a time, as guys start to know each other, this will be a good team. We’ve had our ups and downs, but (we showed against McMaster) we also have potential to be on top of the OUA. We just have to be able to come together as a team.”

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