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Homecoming primer: What you need to know about the football game

October 17, 2014
COLUMN Claude Scilley

COLUMN
Claude Scilley

Theories abound for why the Homecoming football game retains its charm, long after football ceased being the focal point for campus spirit at Queen’s University.

The fact, however, is undeniable.

“I’ve had more requests for tickets in the last 48 hours than any time in my 15 years here,” coach Pat Sheahan was saying Thursday.

Indeed, as of Wednesday morning, the last of the 8,000 or so tickets for Saturday’s football game with the York Lions were spoken for. This in a year when the home team is 1-5, the opponent is not only winless (0-6) but has yet to score a touchdown, at a decrepit stadium, and at a time of year when chances are the weather will be unpleasant.

Go figure.

It’s been many years since the football team at Queen’s routinely drew 5,000 or so students to each and every game, but alumni still identify with the Homecoming football game. Virtually no other reunion activities are scheduled opposite the football game. Tickets to the game are typically secured before a hotel reservation.

Quite simply, it is an event. It is the catalyst for expressing the school spirit Queen’s is so fond of touting. Bear Bryant was right—it is hard to rally around a math class. “We know that we are a big part of making this a great day,” Sheahan said. “A victory on Saturday would put everybody in a good mood.”

Its reputation is widespread.

Wilfrid Laurier coach Michael Faulds, who, having been a quarterback at Western, knows a thing or two about tradition and homecoming football games, was the opposing coach at last year’s reunion game. “We told our young guys, ‘Stay out here and watch them whip their jackets on the grass,’” he said after the game, of the Queen’s engineers’ ritual of storming the field at halftime and slapping their leather jackets on the turf. “This is a memory,” Faults told them, “that you’ve got to have.”

Because it is an event, students who wouldn’t know a football from a footstool, who wouldn’t know Richardson Stadium from Richardson Beach, who wouldn’t know Bayne Norrie from Don Bayne, clamour for tickets like they were free pitchers in the Hub. A week after exactly zero students were present in the east bleachers, 4,000 of them will squeeze into the stadium to watch a game about which most of them probably couldn’t care less. Remarkably, the game retains that kind of cachet.

Since, for the last several generations, the Homecoming game is the only game a lot of students see in a given season, and for those of them who are coming back this weekend, this will surely be the only time they’ll watch the Gaels play this year. Here, then, is a beginner’s guide, a primer, if you will.

The 15 Things You Need to Know to Enjoy the 2014 Homecoming Game.

  1. The history. York has never beaten Queen’s. Not here, not there; not in the playoffs, not in overtime; not as Yeomen, not as Lions. Never. Ever. At some point, they’ve beaten everybody else. They’ve beaten Mac. Even Western. But York is a big, fat 0-15 all-time against Queen’s. The Gaels have never scored more than the 80 points they scored against York in North York on Oct. 4, 2008; three of the six biggest margins of victory in school history—80-0 in 2008; 67-0 in 2009 (No. 4) and 63-3 in 2011 (No. 6)—have come against the Lions.
  2. The folklore. That doesn’t mean Queen’s-York games haven’t had their moments.
  • Take the game of 2001, when York took the lead with a 54-yard field goal with two minutes to go in the game at Kingston. Tom Denison, off the bench, engineered a drive that resulted in a 14-yard field goal by Roger Levac with three seconds left and a 24-22 win. To that day, Denison had been splitting time with Craig Spear at quarterback; that series launched him on a career that culminated with two Hec Crighton trophies.
  • In 2004, York was leading by two points and had the game won when Ryan Elger missed a field goal in the dying seconds. Inexplicably, instead of conceding a single and retaining the ball with an opportunity to run out the clock for a one-point win, the York return man decided to run the ball out of the end zone. He fumbled on the two-yard line. Queen’s recovered with time enough left for one play. Subbing for Elger, Ryan Sheahan kicked a game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock.
  • Queen’s needed overtime to dispose of the Lions in 2006 after York’s Mike Kosteski kicked a 36-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter, tying the game 13-13. Elger made amends with a 37-yard field goal in overtime, after Kosteski missed a 42-yard attempt that went for a single in a 16-14 loss.
  1. The turnover. The Gaels lost 25 players from last year’s team, an unprecedented turnover in Queen’s football history, perhaps in Canadian intercollegiate history. That’s 25 in a game where you dress 47, and six or seven of them are mere window dressing, given how little they actually play. Among the 25 were 18 players who started in the Yates Cup game, two others who would have done so, had they not been injured, and four players now in the CFL. Against McMaster in Week 5 there were five freshmen starting on defence, and five other players starting this year for the first time. On one hand, 1-5 seems about right; on the other, think of the potential for three years hence.
  2. Tough luck. The Gaels won their first game of the season, coming back twice to beat Windsor 39-30, but that win was taken away when a second review of academic eligibility discovered a player—who had earlier been approved by the bureaucrats—was actually ineligible to play. Then came a loss to Ottawa when officials later admitted they had erred in ruling Queen’s had fumbled on a play that led to the Gee-Gees’ game-winning touchdown. A team that could have, maybe even should have, been 2-0 was suddenly winless and reeling.
  3. The debacle. Queen’s has already sent a couple of Homecoming crowds away happy this year, not the least of which was the one at Guelph, where the Gryphons pinned a 66-0 pasting on the Gaels, the largest margin of defeat in the history of the game at Queen’s, where they’ve been kicking the ball around since 1882. We were three weeks into September and the Gaels are 0-4 and already facing the prospect of winning all their remaining games just to have a chance to make the playoffs. After the game, Coach Sheahan was asked if young teams sometimes need to be badly defeated as part of their growth process. “I hate to say it, and I don’t wish it on anybody, but you do,” he said. “Those are tough lessons to learn. Unfortunately, the ones that hit you right between the eyes are the ones that you remember.”
  4. The rebound. The Gaels showed a lot of spunk after Guelph. They went to Hamilton, which hasn’t exactly been hospitable in recent years, and played a solid game, with considerable resiliency, coming from behind to tie, then answering a subsequent McMaster score to stay close into the fourth quarter. Though they lost, the corner had been turned. The players started to believe that, while they might not be as good as the best, they weren’t as bad as 66-0, either.
  5. The win. ‘So what?’ people said. ‘It’s Toronto.’ ‘You always beat Toronto, and besides they’re not any good this year, either.’ ‘The game didn’t mean anything.’ ‘You were supposed to win.’ Skeptical fans perhaps didn’t understand that was precisely point: Queen’s was supposed to beat Toronto in its last game—and it did. At 48-27, it was fairly decisive, too. Don’t forget this was a team that lost a win to forfeit; blew a big fourth-quarter lead; got hammered in Guelph; played its best game of the year at McMaster and lost anyway, then, with a bye, had two weeks to think about being 0-5 for only the third time since 1957. It’s not easy to come off that mat, but this group did.
  6. Mike Moore. He appears in the program as Michael Moore, but he’s so tired of references to the documentary filmmaker—“I get that a lot,” he said to the last guy who tried to drop one on him, with a tone that said, ‘please don’t do that again’—he prefers Mike. And he’s good enough that you want to do just as he asks. A freshman from Mississauga via St. Michael’s College, he’s 10th in Canada in tackles, has two quarterback sacks, has forced two fumbles, and his one-handed interception last week against Toronto was nothing short of spectacular. It will be tough to muster support for a member of a 1-5 defence for conference rookie of the year, but he’s having that kind of season. He wears No. 45. Have a look.
  7. The short list. Part of the tradition of Homecoming is to introduce not the offence or defence, but the graduating players. Last year, you could have gotten a hotdog—even at the snail-slow Richardson Stadium concession stand—and eaten it by the time public-address man Tim Cunningham was finished reading the list. This year’s group is much smaller: Alex Carroll, Billy McPhee, Mike Leroux and Derek Wiggan are the only fifth-year men. Marco Ciallella is due to graduate with eligibility remaining; Justin Gleben, Yann Dika-Balotoken, Aaron Dowd and Luke Ball—his father is Rob, was a member of the 1978 Vanier Cup team—are in their fourth year of eligibility but could return.
  8. Billy McPhee. The fifth-year quarterback from Burlington who came to Queen’s in 2010 when the Waterloo program was suspended for a year (after some of its athletes tested positively for banned substances), has 1,684 yards passing this year, fourth-best in Canada. Last week he passed Denison and moved into second place, all time, at Queen’s, reaching 7,749 yards. As gracious a human being as he is a gifted athlete, he’s also a keen student of the history of the game. You can be sure his final home game will be an emotional event.
  9. Dillon Wamsley. Queen’s kicker has the best average punt in Ontario, the fifth-best in Canada, at 40.9 yards. Not only has he bailed his team out of many a desperate situation this year, he’s saved a couple of touchdowns with last-man tackles. If he maintains that average, it will be the third best in recorded Queen’s history, and the best in a season since 1969.
  10. The plan. When a team has so many new players, generally there can be two ways to approach the season: Create a new plan that accommodates the inexperience of the new players, or stay with the tried-and-true until the new guys get it right. The Gaels appear to be following the latter path. Ultimately, the wisdom of that won’t be known for two or three years. Will we look back and say it was square pegs that would have never fit those round holes? Or are they round pegs that just need to be sharpened a bit to fit? Discuss among yourselves.
  11. Alex Carroll. After a reasonably nondescript start to the season, he’s put together back-to-back career games of 145 and 149 yards, and with 557 yards for the year, he’s fourth in the conference and seventh in Canada in yards receiving. With games remaining against York and Carleton, the 21st and 22nd (of 27 teams) in Canada when it comes to allowing passing yardage, he could well put himself in position for all-star consideration. He wears No. 9.
  12. The defence. Uncharacteristic, in that it’s uncommonly bad. It’s not like a Queen’s team to allow the third-most yards per game in the nation (604), the second-most passing yards per game, the third-most rushing yards and the sixth-most points per game (38.5) as this year’s team has done. (See above reference to the number of rookies starting these days.) If Queen’s is going to win, you can bet it will be in a shootout.
  13. Derek Wiggan. It’s the last opportunity for Queen’s fans to see one of the premier defensive players in the country—perhaps the best at the intercollegiate level—perform. He quietly goes about his job of terrorizing opponents with both skill and dignity, without bravado, and when he’s not doing that his ever-present smile and jovial nature make him a pleasure to be around. Everyone was rooting for him to score a touchdown—a rare treat for defensive linemen—at McMaster when an inadvertent whistle stopped the play. After recovering another fumble against Toronto, he was finally stopped on the three-yard line after about a 30-yard return. If he happens to make it into the end zone Saturday, this will explain why his teammates are so excited.

Welcome back, alumni. Enjoy the game.

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One Comment
  1. vcvet permalink

    Really enjoyed that Claude!

    Jeff Chan Growth Alchemy Group Focused on Growth Strategy and Organizational Performance Toronto, ON, Canada Tel: 1-647-283-2444 Email: jeffachan@gmail.com

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