When Coach Ptaszek was presented with the offer to be the head coach at a program he had called home for over 10 years, there was no way he could refuse.
“It wasn't just a job for 10 years, it was more than that,” said Ptaszek. “A lot has changed over the last two and a half years, but there's still a lot of the great people around the campus and football program which made it a very, very exciting offer, and something that I was extremely interested in.”
Ptaszek’s name speaks volumes when it comes to Marauder football. So though many players and supporters were not too happy about the letting go of previous head coach Greg Knox, the arrival of Ptaszek quickly changed that.
Being the only coach to lead the Marauders to a Vanier Cup championship in 2011, his reputation certainly precedes itself. Ptaszek also held the record for longest winning streak in U Sports (formerly known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport) history, 21 games, brought home three Yates Cups and was named the CIS Coach of the Year in 2012.
— McMaster Marauders (@McMasterSports) November 28, 2018
For Ptaszek, his success can be linked back to his philosophy for leading a team: ‘Football Family’. Using his own experience as a university student-athlete as the blueprint, Ptaszek’s goal to ensure that those in the program see one another as a family is a part of what makes those under him do so well as a unit.
“It's not just 80 guys that get together to play games eight times a year, they have to learn to believe and trust each other,” said Ptaszek. “All of that, under the umbrella of a world-class education, helps them to hopefully leave this place with the tools to be successful forever. That’s the big picture here; winning football games is just a by-product of doing all these other things”
Ensuring that a team has a family bond after such a controversial firing is a difficult task, but for Ptaszek, he finds that the incident has made the team more tight-knit than before.
“When [the players] were not having much guidance in terms of who their next coach was going to be, I think it caused them to have to build a tighter relationship. But they're stronger now, and capable of great things,” said Ptaszek. “Coaches like Scott Brady and John Parkes have been instrumental at keeping this locker room focused, so moving forward I think I inherited a really great situation. I'm going to be smart enough to build upon the great things that are in place here.”
For Ptaszek, building on things that are in place means listening to the needs of the team first, by getting to know his new student-athletes.
“I've had at least one sit down with each player and we're planning another one,” said Ptaszek. “I'm also getting to know the quarterbacks better because quarterback play is a huge thing we have to focus on in the off-season.”
Working hard in the weight room and getting stronger in the winter, the Marauders who are one of few teams lucky enough to most likely be keeping a majority of their starters for the 2019 season, will not have to do a lot of rebuilding. With a small graduating senior class, the team is young with a bright future ahead.
“We have two seniors, Eric Blake and Jordan Lyons, that we may potentially lose to the CFL, but if we're lucky, they’ll be back for their fifth year,” said Ptaszek. “We're going to be a year older, smarter, bigger, faster, stronger and in a great position. McMaster wasn't broken when I took this job, so I'm excited to see where they go.”
Though they have very few players leaving, this has not stopped Ptaszek from adding to the recruiting that was done before he arrived.
“I’m trying to compliment Brady and Parkes to have a great recruiting class,” explained Ptaszek. “It's still early in the process, but we’re really excited about our recruiting class.”
With 23 commits so far, the 2019 recruiting class is shaping up to be a good one.
As for goals for the 2019 season, reaching their full potential is all Ptaszek wants out of the Marauders. With the standard of excellence in Ontario set by the Western University Mustangs, he aims to close that gap.
“This year we’re a bit better at every position, plus our great recruiting class that is coming in, so I think we will be able to achieve our goal of closing that gap of the provincial standard set by the Mustangs down the road," said Ptaszek.
“This means being better at offence, defence and special teams, and attention to detail in every area,” Ptaszek added. “When the Yates Cup is being played in 2019, the Marauders want to be on that field, and I think that’s a realistic goal.”
With weight training, quarterback play and recruiting well underway, the only thing missing is an offensive coordinator, after the departure of Tom Flaxman last week. Once that role is filled, hopefully, Ptaszek and the Marauders will be able to return to that level of excellence that Ptaszek is known for. Although we will have to wait for that first kick-off come August to find out.
When the Marauders beat the Guelph Gryphons 20-15 on Nov. 15, they did more than win a trophy or earn a berth in the Mitchell Bowl. They solidified the McMaster football program’s place in history.
With the Yates Cup win, McMaster can rightfully say that they are the most consistent program of the new millennium. Since 2000, Mac has won seven Yates Cups in eight championship game appearances — three more than Western, the next closest program.
The team is undefeated in Yates Cup finals under head coach Stefan Ptaszek and has won three championships in the last four years. Achieving “dynasty” status in sports is incredibly difficult, yet here we are. And of all the squads to win a Yates, this one may have had the toughest road.
The team came into the season as relatively unknown given a less-than-stellar campaign the year before. Winning the OUA was a goal, not an expectation like in previous years, and that showed in the celebra- tion. The post-game scene was emotional chaos.
Players yelling, screaming about the win, finding family and loved ones to embrace and running toward the stage — it was an outpour of feelings. No one really had a direction; players darted between runs to the stage and the people calling their names.
As someone who has witnessed Yates Cup wins by the Marauders before, it was interesting to see the confusion. This group has a handful of players who have won the Yates before, and they still have players who won the 2011 Vanier Cup, too. But you couldn’t tell that anyone had been there before, because in a way, they never have.
Recent Marauder generations had dominated the competition, running through Yates Cup opponents with little regard for who lined up on the opposite side of the ball. Now though, the league talent has caught up and the Marauders were not as balanced.
This game encapsulated all of that. Mac’s passing game was non-existent: Marshall Ferguson (one of the 2011 Vanier Cup winners) completed 24-34 passing for only 191 yards, throwing three interceptions in the process.
The ground game was effective, but running back Chris Pezzetta could not get every first down. He tried, though. Pezzetta, who tore his ACL twice in the past two years, rumbled for 144 yards. Guelph, while under-manned due to injuries to Jazz Lindsey and A’Dre Fraser, put together good drives and stymied Mac’s attack. The only Maroon touchdown of the game came from defensive lineman Mike Kashak, picking off a James Roberts screen pass, stiff-arming the Guelph QB and running for 30 yards to put six on the board.
It was the defence that brought the Yates back to McMaster. Joey Cupido picked off the Gryphons twice in the game — once in Mac’s endzone — and has 14 interceptions in 14 career playoff games. The CIS does not know who the all-time leader in post-season interceptions is, but let’s just give it to Cupido.
It was a performance so good, there is little risk of time stretching the truth and exaggerating just how well Cupido played. A crucial break-up in the fourth quarter solidified his spot as the Yates Cup MVP.
As the players ran around in post-win delirium, it seems like they were running with a bit more freedom. There has been nothing convincing about this season and most of the games against real competition have been ugly affairs.
The season, up until now, left something to be desired because we had experienced the best teams in school history.
But all the talk about being a team that can make a run at the Vanier was validated when that Yates Cup was hoisted.
This new brand of football delivered a Yates and really, that is all that matters. This team is playing with house money, escaping the toughest conference in the country and looking like they still have another gear. The rest of the CIS is wide open too. Laval lost to Montreal in a 12-9 kicker’s duel. Mac’s opponent Mt. Allison made it through a transitioning AUS conference, playing few, if any, games against national contenders.
“It’s okay to be proud. It’s not okay to be satisfied,” said Ptaszek after the game. And watching that group celebrate while taking the group photo, banner and trophy in the centre of the team, you saw the pride. You didn’t see satisfaction. You talk to the players, and you hear that pride but you don’t hear satisfaction.
Players like Pezzetta, Ferguson, Cupido — you could see that they do not want to be a checkpoint on the 2014 Vanier Cup bracket.
They want to be there at the very end.