ANTIGONISH, N.S. (Courtesy of StFX Athletics) – Another chapter in the rich history of St. Francis Xavier University athletics will be written this weekend. On Saturday (5 p.m. AST / 4 p.m. EST, Sportsnet 360 & TVA Sports), the X-Men football team will host the UBC Thunderbirds in the CIS Uteck Bowl, with the winner of the match-up earning a spot in the ArcelorMittal Vanier Cup presented by Promutuel Assurance, on Nov. 28 in Quebec City.
Representatives from both teams gathered Thursday afternoon at the StFX Keating Centre in Antigonish to talk about the upcoming playoff battle.
As for his Thunderbirds, who punched their ticket to the Uteck Bowl with a win over the top-ranked and previously undefeated Calgary Dinos in the Canada West championship (Hardy Cup), head coach Blake Nill said he “can’t explain how this program has gelled and come together.”
“They have done everything that I have asked of them,” he added of his young squad.
Describing his players as “heroes,” Nill said they have worked hard “to change the culture of UBC football.”
X-Men head coach Gary Waterman expressed great pride in his charges, who earned their spot in the game with a Loney Bowl win over the two-time defending AUS champion Mount Allison Mounties.
“They have a never-say-die attitude,” he said, in commending them for the adversity they overcame this season.
When asked when he thought the X-Men could have something ‘special’, Waterman talked about how his players reacted to a 64-0 interlock road loss to the Laval Rouge et Or in late September.
“We learned a lot of lessons,” he said, noting StFX did not bring their best game on that day. “From there, we started to figure some things out. We took stock after that adversity and began making some adjustments.”
Noting the season in many ways “still defies logic,” Nill talked about an exhibition win at the beginning of the campaign over the same foe – Laval.
“What is going on here,” Nill said, echoing the words of his assistant coach Greg Delaval – a former X-Men player – on the sidelines after that victory. He noted he had taken his Calgary teams to Laval, often boasting several future professionals and all-stars, but the results were not the same.
“There is not a tougher place to play,” he also said of travelling to the University of Saskatchewan, comparing the community atmosphere and support for their team to what one finds at StFX. Nill said, when UBC defeated Saskatchewan on the road in October, he started to think “these kids have come a long way.”
In assessing the opponent, Waterman said the Thunderbirds have “a lot of speed,” describing first-year quarterback Michael O’Connor as “outstanding.”
“He has all the measurables, all the things you look for,” Waterman added, noting O’Connor “can make all the throws.”
He described UBC running back Brandon Deschamps as “a tough, physical runner.”
“We expect them to be very athletic and physical,” Waterman said of the Thunderbirds.
Nill talked about the size of the X-Men offensive line, which boasts three AUS all-stars. “And the defence has great athleticism,” he said.
Nill also touched on an important intangible element his team will face – the environment at Oland Stadium, with a partisan StFX crowd.
“I know what this game means to this school [StFX],” he said. Nill added he knows the X-Men “will bring their game to another level”, and UBC needs to be prepared for that challenge.
A subplot to the Thunderbird-X-Men match-up is the return of Nill to the StFX campus. The Vanier Cup-winning head coach, who is in his first season guiding UBC, started his career on the sidelines in Antigonish. He was the defensive co-ordinator for the 1996 X-Men team that played in the national championship game.
“It is a tremendous honour to be back here at StFX,” Nill said in his opening remarks during the press conference.
He recounted how then StFX athletic director ‘Packy’ MacFarland “took a chance” on him in 1992 by making him part of the X-Men coaching staff.
“It meant everything to me,” Nill said, noting he wouldn’t be where he is today without his StFX experience.
Nill described that time at StFX as a “pretty unique situation,” where he not only served as a coach, but also an instructor and a student.
“I am eternally grateful,” the two-time StFX graduate said.
Dr. Kent MacDonald, StFX president, commended both football programs for being “deeply dedicated to student athletics,” including their performance on the field and in the classroom.
He added he was “terribly proud of our team at StFX.”
“You have worked so hard all year to put us in the position for such a wonderful experience on Saturday,” MacDonald said.
Leo MacPherson, StFX director of athletics and recreation and a former CIS president, reflected on having the opportunity to present the Uteck Bowl – and Vanier Cup – on a couple occasions.
“I can appreciate the work that goes into getting to this point,” he said.
Wearing his hat as StFX athletic director, MacPherson said “we are delighted to host a national championship semi-final.”
Waterman said the opportunity for the X-Men not only to play in the Uteck Bowl, but also host the game at will be a “tremendous experience.”
“It is going to great for StFX, Antigonish and all of Nova Scotia,” he added.
Players from both teams joined their coaches at the event, including fifth-year X-Men wide receiver Donald Tabor.
“It is going to be a battle of two very talented, athletic teams,” the Dartmouth native said.
Thunderbird defensive back Taylor Loffler said his team was “very happy to be here.”
“We are excited about playing StFX,” he added.
Nill said “we will bring our best effort on Saturday.” Waterman echoed that sentiment. “We are looking forward to the challenge of playing a great UBC team.”
The winner of the Uteck Bowl will face the ArcelorMittal Dofasco Mitchell Bowl champion. That national semi-final match-up, which will also take place Saturday (12:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet 360 & TVA Sports), pits the reigning Vanier Cup champion Montreal Carabins against the Guelph Gryphons.