Brandon Meawasige

Assistant Sports Editor

 

No. 9 Acadia Axemen (8-1)

Flying under the radar until late in the season, the Acadia Axemen have quietly put together one of the most successful overall teams in the CIS this season.

The Axemen will bring twelve conference all-stars to the Uteck Bowl including the AUS Most Valuable Players on both offence and defence with quarterback Kyle Graves and linebacker Tom Labenski taking home earning those honors.

In addition, Acadia’s coach Jeff Cummins, in his ninth season in that role, was named AUS Coach of the Year.

On offense the Axemen average 423.2 yards per game, ranking second in their conference and tenth in the CIS in that category.

Led by Graves, who threw for 1856 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, Acadia’s attack is based on a consistent passing game that had Graves targeting five different receivers more than ten times in eight regular season games.

On the ground three running backs carried the majority of the load for the Axemen with sophomore players Zack Skibin and Zack Clarke complementing senior Brett Haenni for an average of 175.5 yards per game. This run-by-committee style helped Acadia be the premier rushing team in the AUS.

The Axemen’s defence is one of the best in the country. Ranked third in the CIS, the unit averaged an AUS-low of 307.2 yards per game. Undeniably the greatest strength of this team, that group has been dubbed “The Wolfville Wall”, a reference to the university’s location in Wolfville, NS.

One of the Axemen’s five defensive all stars, defensive tackle Jake Thomas is a big reason why the unit allowed less than 100 yards rushing each game.  Recording nine sacks and leading the country with 16 tackles for a loss, Thomas is an exciting player to watch.

In order for Acadia to be successful, the defence must be stout against the run and continue to generate the big plays that have held opposing offences to an average of 13.5 points per game.

A loss to perennial powerhouse St. Mary’s on Oct. 1 was the only blemish in an otherwise dominant season for the Axemen. The Huskies won that game by a score of 8-3, handing Acadia its first and only loss.

Redemption was in the offing as the two faced off in the Loney Bowl on Nov. 12. St. Mary’s was the heavy favourite entering play, as they had captured the title for four consecutive seasons from 2007- 2010.

However, it seems to be a season of destiny for the Axemen, who ended the Huskies’ regional reign by the decisive score of 39-20. The AUS championship is the 12th in program history, earning the Axemen their third Uteck Bowl appearance.

The Axemen, who lost both of those previous games to Laval and Laurier respectively, are looking to make it to the Vanier Cup for the fifth time, and the first in 30 years.

 

No. 4 McMaster Marauders (9-1)

This 2011 season has been one of the most remarkable in recent memory for the McMaster Marauders.

Despite missing key players for a majority of the regular season, the team suffered only one loss and captured the Yates Cup without much playoff resistance.

McMaster has 11 conference All-Stars scattered across both their offence and defence.  Receiver Michael Dicroce, who led the CIS with over 900 receiving yards, and linebacker Ryan Chmielewski, who led the Marauders in tackles, were named conference Most Valuable Players on offence and defence, respectively.

Led by star quarterback Kyle Quinlan, the Marauders had the most potent offence in the country this season, leading the CIS with an average of 530.5 yards per game. Despite missing three games, Quinlan put together a season worthy of a First Team OUA All-Star.

However, while the passing game remains the Marauders’ focus, there is a bright spot emerging in McMaster’s backfield. Rookie running back Chris Pezzetta led the team with 468 rushing yards this season, and largely supplanted senior Joey Nemet as the team’s feature back.

In the Marauders’ Yates Cup victory on Nov. 12, Pezzetta rushed the ball 19 times for 151 yards and a touchdown, an impressive contribution from such a young player.

Look for the ground game to have a big impact on the outcome of the Uteck Bowl, as most observers focus on the more high profile passing game led by Quinlan and Dicroce.

Not to be outdone, the Marauders defence has been one of, if not the most exciting to watch in the OUA. In nine games prior to the Yates Cup, McMaster intercepted opposing quarterbacks 25 times.

Although ranked tenth in the CIS and allowing an average of 357.9 yards per game, the Marauders defence has been much more dominant in the playoffs, holding both Queen’s and Western to under 20 points.

Capturing the first Yates Cup since 2003, the Marauders have earned the opportunity to make the program’s first Vanier Cup appearance. With a mix of veteran leadership and young talent, there is no denying the Marauders’ capability to put points on the board.

If the offence and defense can work together as they did in the Yates Cup, this could be the year for McMaster’s national breakthrough.

Brandon Meawasige

Assistant Sports Editor

 

Striving for the pinnacle of university football in Canada and facing an unknown opponent, Head Coach Stefan Ptaszek and the McMaster Marauders travel to Moncton, New Brunswick this week to represent the OUA as champions in the 2011 Uteck Bowl on November 19.

Ptaszek, in his sixth season as bench boss, has coached the Marauders to the program’s first OUA title since 2003.

The 2003 championship, and Mac’s previous three in a row, were coached by Western’s current head coach Greg Marshall. By winning the Yates Cup, Ptaszek has joined Marshall in the upper echelons of McMaster’s football history.

“Its been a great week, the well wishers from former presidents, former athletic directors, alumni and the greater marauder football family have all taken the time to say congratulations, how impressed they are with the 2011 season and wishing us the best of luck going forward,” said Ptaszek of the accomplishment.

However, as he will tell you, it is not the coaching staff and their accomplishments that will drive this team forward. “It’s not about us [Coaches] lifting a Yates Cup again, it was all about watching these kids lift the Yates Cup for the first time,” he added.

Unfortunately, such is the rigor of CIS playoff football; the Marauders must put the Yates victory behind them and look towards their next game.

Lining up opposite to Mac on Saturday will be Acadia Axemen, who have had an interesting trip to the Vanier Cup semi-final of their own.

Essentially, neither team was touted as the conference front-runner until after the championship game. The losing teams in both cases, Western and St. Mary’s, were heavy favorites prior to and during the season.

That being said, the Uteck Bowl features two very worthy participants this year pitting a Mac team loaded with firepower on both sides of the ball against an Axemen squad that won 5 of 7 major individual awards in the AUS.

“They are a very well-coached, disciplined team with playmakers at every level of both the offence and defence as you would expect from a championship team" Ptaszek said of the Axemen, whose coach, Jeff Cummins, won AUS coach of the year.

Ptaszek and his staff have a very tough team on their hands this week, needing to prepare for something they haven’t faced yet in the playoffs; a star quarterback with the talent and skill set to take control of an entire game.

The case can be made that Acadia’s pivot and AUS offensive most valuable player Kyle Graves will be the toughest test for McMasters defense all season. “He has a strong arm and he can run the ball really well and has had a fantastic year,” said Ptaszek.

“The OUA is one of the best conferences in the country and it gets you ready for all kinds of football. Playing Austin Kennedy and Donnie Marshall gets you ready for a Kyle Graves,” added the coach.

One thing is certain, no matter the success of the 2011 Marauders; it will be difficult to find Ptaszek taking any form of personal credit. Even if his defence does manage to stop Graves and his team wins the game, he will surely find another Marauder whom to credit with an amazing performance. This cohesive, unselfish, team- oriented way of doing things precipitates into the style of play that has made his team so successful.

A quality that may have gone unnoticed if not for the series of setbacks endured by the team this year. Forced to play without Kyle Quinlan for three games, the Marauders had to account for the absence of their offensive heart and soul.

For a team centered on one or two players, losing those players would be disastrous - think about the affect of removing the legs of a table.

Losing their starting running back Joey Nemet, cornerback Joey Cupido and Quinlan just to name a few, Ptaszek needed to work the pieces that remained; a predicament that not only threatened the well being of a few games, but the entire 2011 season. Not for lack of personnel, however, a backup quarterback and rookie running back are not traditional picks to carry a powerhouse team to the championship.

The Marauders not only managed to get by, instead, the team dominated the conference this year, seamlessly transitioning from line up change to line up change.

Going into the Uteck Bowl, Mac is as healthy as ever and Ptaszek will be able to use the full of extent of the weapons at his disposal.

With the focus now on the Vanier Cup, every decision is bigger and the consequences magnified.

It’s not about numbers and achievements for Ptaszek at this point, but about his players and their chance at glory, especially the nine seniors on the roster. Having had a chance to watch them lift the cup was a special moment for the coach. “Watching Matt Peressini lift that Yates Cup, as a fifth-year senior, was about as cool a thing as you will ever see.”

For all involved, lifting the Vanier would be the best possible outcome.

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