Western Mustangs hope football camp ‘heals’ ahead of pressure-filled season

The Vanier Cup champions spent much of their offseason in mourning.

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The Vanier Cup champions spent much of their offseason in mourning.

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That’s why, as the Western Mustangs kick off training camp next weekend, aiming for a one-time national title on home soil, they hold close to their hearts friends they’ve lost, including legendary leaders Darwin Semotiuk and Larry Haylor, and dedicate each day in the field to their memory.

“It was definitely a very difficult time for our football program,” Mustangs head coach Greg Marshall said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate the Vanier Cup win (in December) when you know Darwin was admitted to hospital and then he and Larry passed away the same week in early January.

“I think once we get to training camp, we’ll do what Larry and Darwin did, and we’ll buckle up and focus on what we need to do.”

The Mustangs also remember former defensive coordinator Bob LaRose, quarterbacks coach Jay (KJ) Kenemy and standout defensive lineman Bryan (JJ) Jones, a native of London, who died suddenly on July 26.

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“I just attended (JJ’s) funeral and it was like a football meeting,” defensive coordinator Paul Gleason said. “All the people we have lost in such a short time, it really comes down to this bond that we all share. This is what brought us together and we suffer a lot from it, but at the same time we can rejoice.

“Boot camp will be a healing process and we will be able to sit down and tell the stories and share what each of these men meant to each of us. That is why boot camp will be a good and positive thing to do. many ways.

A large contingent is expected to attend Haylor’s memorial, which is scheduled a day before the Mustangs’ 2022 campaign kicks off against Guelph on Aug. 27 at 1 p.m. at Western Alumni Stadium.

Marshall, now in his 15th season at the helm of his alma mater, is counting on the program’s rich tradition of excellence to keep them together through tough times.

“We are just continuing what players and coaches have done before them,” he said. “We try to win and hope to win, but honoring their legacy by competing every week as they would have prepared their teams is the best way forward. We certainly remember what they did and it will be with us all season, and forever.

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The chance to lift the Vanier Cup on campus in November is automatic motivation. Needless to say, the first college football national title game held in London will have a much better chance of success if the Mustangs are successful.

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They don’t have the easiest route, however. They must first get through an improved Ontario conference before a semi-final showdown with the Quebec champion (likely Laval or Montreal) in the Mitchell Bowl.

“I was hoping, like the Knights (in the Memorial Cup), that you’d get that host spot,” Marshall joked, “but it’s not going to happen. It’s a lot of pressure. It is a difficult path. For us, there is pressure on us all the time. The fact that we have the opportunity to host the Vanier Cup creates a lot of excitement and buzz and puts some pressure on us, but we try to make it happen every year anyway.

“I (personally) don’t feel a lot of extra pressure at the start of the season.”

Having one of the best offensive lines in the country will help. The returning trench men will give Cup MVP quarterback Evan Hillock and running backs Keon Edwards and Edouard Wanadi plenty of time to operate.

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“They know the system and they’ve played it at the highest level,” Marshall said. “Our offensive line is not just made up of good players, but leaders, and that leadership will keep everyone motivated and in line.”

Hillock felt he was too light at the end of last season, so he spent time gaining weight and worked with former Mustangs quarterback Will Finch to clean up his mechanics and make sure that his arm remains healthy.

“Last year is last year. It’s a fresh start (and) everyone is going to come and get us more than before,” he said. “No extra pressure. At Western, we take it day by day. You don’t win the Vanier Cup in August. We don’t think about it. We think about getting better every day, (so) when that time comes, we’ll be good to go.

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The Mustangs’ biggest concern will be on the defensive front, where they earned National Lineman of the Year Deionte Knight and most of his top talent. Alex Veilleux got into medical school at McMaster, Austin Fordham-Miller got a job opportunity he didn’t want to pass up, and Nic Theriault was ready to jump into the business world.

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Gleason has experienced a three-line front and he will be complemented by a solid back, bolstered last week by the return of Danny Valente from the Ottawa RedBlacks. The defense also added transfers from lineman Connor Franzisi, who played at Alabama A&M, and Nate Gonzalez from Simon Fraser to provide a spark.

“We talked about it in 2017 (when the Mustangs beat Laval at the Vanier Cup),” Marshall said. “We thought the o line would be a strength and the d line a problem. At the end of the season, our D line, they were workers – no superstars or all-Canadians in that group – but they played at an extremely high level. Paul has done a great job of mixing up the fronts, but this is an opportunity for the younger guys who haven’t played much to stand out. It can be a strength. »

And if not, Gleason has another solution.

“As long as the offense scores 50 (a game), the defense will be fine,” he said.

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