Tuesday, November 24, 2009

They may not look like cheerleaders...

They congregate in an area of the bleachers directly behind the opponent’s bench, emblazoned in Gryphon red, toting paper cones, megaphones, pots and pans, and essentially anything else that can make the most amount of noise and cause the biggest ruckus.

For those who may not have seen, the Gryphon men’s basketball team has a new cheering section.

In a great show of support for their fellow Gryphon varsity athletes, members of the university’s football team, along with their friends, have made it their mission to make as much noise as they can at varsity basketball games, in an attempt to frustrate the opposition.

And so far, it seems to be working.

The supersized cheerleading unit made their first appearance a few weeks ago during the Gryphons basketball home opening weekend, strategically situating themselves behind the opposing Ottawa Gee-Gees team bench.

It’s incredible to see that despite the football season being over, the opportunity to be a fan never ceases. They’ve emptied the kitchen cupboards and taken crowd noise to the next level.

When the Gee-Gees had the ball, the section hollered. When the Gee-Gees turned it over, the group howled. And when the Gee-Gees huddled around the bench, they erupted.
The Gee-Gees, looking frazzled, were forced to move their huddle away from their bench and underneath their own basket instead. Success! The noise was too great. Smiles crept upon the faces of other fans enjoying the spectacle.

Effective? Absolutely. Unsportsmanlike? No way.

This kind of patriotism, loyalty and dedication is what varsity sports should feature on a regular basis. It’s this kind of camaraderie that helps create a sense of school spirit, sadly often unseen on this campus, aside from Homecoming football.

But not only is the newfound cheering section effective, their methods are starting to spread and pay off. You can literally see the level of frustration on the faces of opposing players and coaches as the contingent of football players increases the decibel levels. Similarly, you can also see the appreciation on the faces of the Gryphon players on the court and on the bench. The crowd excitement is an inspiration for good play, and vice-versa.

While the Gryphons may not be winning, they’re certainly playing an exciting brand of basketball, with three of their first four home games undecided until the final two minutes of play. The crowd sizes are increasing and the buzz around the gym is encouraging.

Is this growing level of support unique only to Gryphons basketball, or a sign of changing times on campus? I can only hope for the latter; perhaps, students are truly starting to embrace campus sports and establish that missing sense of Gryphon identity and pride for varsity athletics.

Even if you’re not a basketball, or even a sports fan, I can promise that the excitement that emerges from the gym is worth the price of admission. The Gryphons won’t be back in action on campus until after the new year. When it’s game time, come for the cheering, stay for the basketball. And don’t forget your frying pan.

Monday, November 16, 2009

One last heave

It had all the makings of a modern day resurrection of the famed Bobby Baun story. An athlete, hampered by injury, returns to the field of play, braving the pain and sacrificing his body for one last heroic performance.

For those that don’t know, Baun was a defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s. In the 1964 Stanley Cup finals, Baun fearlessly blocked a Gordie Howe slap shot, breaking his ankle and requiring him to be taken off the ice on a stretcher.

Famously though, in what is widely considered one of the most heroic moments in sports history, Baun returned to the ice in that same game, aided only by ankle tape and painkillers. Baun scored the game-winning overtime goal that night, giving the Leafs a Game 6 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, en route to their third consecutive Stanley Cup win. It was the kind of story that lives on for generations.

Fast-forward 45 years to the Yates Cup, the Ontario University football championship game played on Saturday between the Western Mustangs and Queen’s Gaels. The game featured two of the most prolific quarterbacks in CIS history with the Mustangs’ Michael Faulds and the Gaels’ Danny Brannagan going head to head.

Late in the fourth quarter, with Western trailing 43-39, Faulds, the nation’s all-time passing leader, got his team on the move, having already thrown for over 500 yards in the game. After an incomplete pass on first down at the Gaels’ 25-yardline, Western fans gaped with fear. Faulds was down. His wonky knee had given out.

Faulds had to be helped to the sideline by his teammates, virtually unable to walk. It was hard to tell if the pain on his face was because of his knee, or because he could no longer help his team win.

With Faulds on the sideline, backup quarterback Donnie Marshall was in for four plays and struggled to take the Mustangs any further. Meanwhile, Faulds watched in agony on the sidelines, wondering if his record-setting career would really end like this.

Faulds pleaded with his head coach, Greg Marshall, begging for just one more chance to go back in. Marshall appeared reluctant to risk further injury.

Down to their last chance, needing to score on a 3rd-and-20 play with just 17 seconds left, Marshall caved and out trotted Michael Faulds. Except Michael Faulds didn’t jog out to the huddle. He limped.

Unable to put virtually any weight on his left knee, the Mustangs leader could barely stand. Watching the game on television, the stories I’d heard about Baun raced through my head and a lump formed in my throat. This was truly sports heroism at its finest.

As Faulds took the snap, he tried to go into his usual five-step drop into the pocket. The Gaels’ pass rush burst through the line and got a hold of Faulds’ leg. With a desperate heave, Faulds fearlessly threw the ball downfield, barely out of reach of wide receiver Zach Bull. The game was over. Western was defeated. Michael Faulds had replayed the football version of the Bobby Baun story, and the only thing missing was the happy ending.

As a tireless Gryphon supporter, I felt strange cheering for Michael Faulds on Saturday. I’ve cheered against him for five years when the Mustangs visited Alumni Stadium to take on the Gryphs. But for this brief moment in time, he had my support. For all things that are good in sports, I wanted him to succeed. I wanted that happy ending, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

In future years, people will look at this game and may only remember it for the fact that it was the Gaels’ first Yates Cup victory in 31 years. With all due respect to Queen’s, however, this game belonged to Michael Faulds – Mustang quarterback and a gridiron warrior.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rookies show their stuff

On Friday night, the Gryphons men’s basketball team opened their regular season against the Carlton Ravens. A quick glance at the schedule, rosters and team histories suggested that this was going to be a blowout – one not in favour of the Gryphons. The Gryphons were without two of their top players, as both Dan McCarthy and Jon Moscatelli watched from the sidelines with injuries and the Ravens, despite losing three OUA all-stars to graduation, were fresh off their second consecutive national championship, their fifth title in the last eight years.

Safe to say, the Ravens are a perennial powerhouse, while the Gryphons were left with two returning starters in Jay Mott and Mike Petrella, a handful of backups, and a slew of no fewer than six rookies.

If other Gryphon fans weren’t shuddering at the potential for a bloodbath in this game, I sure was.

Lo and behold, the new-look and undermanned Gryphons showed me up, and showed the entire league that despite all the unfamiliar names, the new kids on the block were here to play. The Gryphons fell 75-74 to the Ravens after a last-second shot attempt fell short, but nevertheless, the performance was incredible, in what was probably the most exciting basketball game that this campus has seen in years.

Mott and Petrella did their usual thing, scoring 22 and 19 points respectively, with Petrella adding ten assists while Mott drilled five three-pointers. It was the performances of the rookies, however, that kept the Gryphons close, particularly down the stretch.

Start with the bigs.

John Brutto, one of the top-ranked centres in Canada coming into university, sports a wingspan that is no less than seven feet wide. He was inserted directly into the starting lineup and made an immediate impact at the defensive end. In 16 minutes, Brutto grabbed four rebounds and two steals, despite drawing the toughest defensive matchup of the game, trying to guard against the Ravens’ Kevin McCleary.

Brutto was joined in the frontcourt by six-foot-ten Colton Hood, who played sparsely, but showed a knack for attacking the basket and using his size effectively.

Matt Howlett was the third Gryphon forward to make an impact, scoring nine points in 19 minutes off the bench, and did a great job of bouncing back after struggling with his shots in the first half.

Now look at the guards, Adrian Achonwa and Drew Morris.

Achonwa was placed in the starting lineup for his first ever university game, and did not look out of place. His tenacity on defence and ability to drive and penetrate in the lane was definitely a welcome sign. It seems that once again, head coach Chris O’Rourke has successfully recruited an outstanding local talent; Achonwa played high school basketball at Centennial CVI, the same high school where last year’s rookie standout, McCarthy, came from.

Morris, a smallish point guard, was the rookie who really stole the show. With 12 points in 22 minutes, Morris was the rookie who received the most critical playing time down the stretch, making big shots time after time while protecting the ball, and even grabbed a pair of huge offensive rebounds, keeping drives alive despite his lack of size.

If you were to just look at the stat sheet, these performances might look ordinary and uninteresting. On Friday night though, their showings were far from the norm.

They came out and showed they belonged.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The fallacy of individual awards

The Gryphons women’s rugby team are moving on to the national championships in British Columbia, fresh off an impressive win over the Western Mustangs in the OUA title game. These undefeated Gryphons feature Brittany Benn, the OUA’s leading scorer, Jacey Murphy, perhaps the league’s most powerful player, and Colette McAuley, their head coach who has never failed to lead the team to an OUA medal in her 13 years with the club, the first ten coming as an assistant.
And yet, none of these women’s names could be found when the OUA dealt out the individual awards for Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year at the end of the regular season.

Without taking anything away from Western’s Laura Russell and Laurier’s Jennifer Armitage, who won the Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year awards, respectively, these women pale in comparison to Guelph’s finest.
Forgive me for being a homer, but I’ve got to agree with the sentiments that I overheard from onlookers following the individual ceremonies on Saturday. These awards are a farce.

Benn led the league with 13 tries and 12 converts, despite playing on field conditions that were never particularly favourable. Her 89 points exceeded the second-leading scorer, Andrea Wadsworth of Queen’s by an incredible 39 points. No player came anywhere near Benn in terms of dominating the attacking and kicking games this season, and yet her accomplishments were not enough to garner top honours? Did I mention that she did all this as just a second-year player? Farce.

Murphy is one of the most well-rounded players in the league. The third-year 8-man was a constant pillar of force for the Gryphons, scoring tries, breaking tackles, passing to her teammates and holding the opposition at bay. Her eight tries placed her third beyond Benn and Wadsworth for most in the OUA. Yet no accolades? Farce.

Or consider McAuley, a Gryphon rugby alum, former member of the national team and a coach who has never failed to put her team on the podium in her 13 years as a team administrator, including three OUA titles in the past four years. She has constantly replenished the Gryphon talent pool via deft recruiting and her dedication to hard work has resulted in the Gryphons playing above and beyond their competition every week. And they keep getting better. I’m sure Armitage is a capable coach, but let’s face it, the Golden Hawks (1-4) finished in last place, including a 90-0 loss to McAuley’s Gryphons. I guess that instead of recognizing individual accomplishments, the OUA opted for rewarding mediocrity this year. Farce.

In each and every game this year, the Gryphons have won as a team. If you asked them about their names being omitted from the individual awards, they’ll surely shrug it off. They play for all the right reasons: team reasons. But their accomplishments would not be what they are if it weren’t for the work of some extremely talented individuals; individuals that were not given their due respect by the OUA. The league needs to reconsider its selection strategy; it has failed its most successful individuals in the greatest way. Guelph Gryphons: OUA champions. OUA selection committee: Farce.