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Mike Sullivan may be the most thankful Gael at the Yates Cup
Posted: November 7th, 2013 @ 9:04pm
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
As he tries to explain the importance to his team of Mike Sullivan, Queen's Golden Gaels coach Pat Sheahan shares a story.
"(Assistant coach) Phil Roberts was talking to another coach," Sheahan said, "and he was asking about practice organization. One of the things Phil said, because it's his first year in the program, was, 'I can't get over the way things just roll.'
"And the other coach asked him, 'Well, what if you have a bad snap?' (The answer was), 'We don't stop practice for bad snaps and re-do the play. We don't have any.'"
That's a credit, Sheahan said, to his senior centre.
"Perhaps having missed some games eliminated Mike from all-star contention - but in my mind there's no other centre in the league I would want."
Ask around the Gaels as they prepare for the Yates Cup championship game Saturday in London whether it's fair to say the improvement in the team's running game coincided with the return of Sullivan to regular duty and the answer would generally be in the affirmative.
There's evidence to support the theory. When Sullivan missed the first three games of the season, the Gaels averaged 135 yards rushing. In the five regular-season matches after that the average was 275 yards per game.
"To say that (the offensive line) was a weaker unit without him is not exactly fair," quarterback Billy McPhee said, "but when he came back, the numbers speak for themselves.
"You can't really circle offensive success around one player but obviously with him back, it definitely helped."
Sullivan was expected to be back in August for his fifth season with the Gaels but he encountered some academic difficulty and, until that was straightened out, he was unable to so much as practice with the team. He launched an appeal, but the professor in question had retired, moved to British Columbia and proved difficult to contact.
"It was weird," Sullivan said. "I was kind of in limbo there for a bit but I took care of business and things worked out."
He missed all of training camp. Two games went by before Sullivan's case was finally settled in his favour. Finally, he could join the team. "It was a big relief," he said.
McPhee recalled what that was like.
"We had just gone through training camp," McPhee said, "but he was fresh, so he was running around like he was in first year again. We're all going, 'What are you doing? Relax man, we're dead. We just did a training camp plus two games in five days.'
"He was very excited to come back and support a winning team."
Sullivan acknowledges as much. "I was flying around," he said. "It was good to be back."
Feigned annoyance notwithstanding, McPhee also remembers the impact Sullivan's return had on the rest of the team.
"It was a phenomenal boost, to say the least," he said. "Team morale, in general, changed.
"Going into the season the plan was that he'd be back and when he wasn't back right away, it was, 'OK, well, where's our O line headed? What kind of direction are we going to take?' because the centre really is the face of the offensive line. The left tackle might be the anchor of it but the centre is the face of it. He's the guy who makes all the calls on the field, he's the guy who leads them out, he initiates the play.
"Mike offers a ton of veteran experience (and) when he came back he gave us a lot of confidence. He brings that meanness that offensive linemen need. He gets everybody else fired up. The guys react well to him, for sure."
Sheahan said Sullivan, a geography major who played high school ball at Holy Cross, has had "a great year."
"He's definitely a big part of the running game and the improvements that have been made to it," Sheahan said.
"He's aggressive, he's smart. Mike is one of those guys who elevates the emotional level of the guys around him. He has a little bit of what a lot of people would call a defensive mentality. He's a fired-up guy. He's going out there to make his presence felt. You need guys like that to get the emotions up."
Sheahan spoke of some of the outstanding offensive lineman who have played for him at Queen's - future professionals such as Jon Landon and Matt O'Donnell, for instance. "You've got some terrific guys that I've had here," Sheahan said, "and Mike's as good as any of them."
"Offensive lineman typically are great creatures of logic. Mike also has the emotional part and it makes it him very effective."
When the possibility arose that Sullivan might not return, the Gaels moved tackle Matt Kendrick to centre. Beyond the notion that he was doing his bit for the team, Kendrick was not in love with the move but Sheahan said he benefitted from his brief exposure to the position.
"He's a better football player because he had to assume some of the centre's responsibilities," Sheahan said, "but he was quick to point out, 'Oh, my god, he has to know all that stuff on every play?'"
Having endured the early season agony of not knowing whether he'd be able to play, there's a good chance Sullivan feels like he's the luckiest man in the Gaels locker room these days as they chase the conference championship.
"I'm just glad I can be part of this now," "I'm just happy to be back, practising and playing. It's my last year so I'm practising and playing like (every play) is going to be my last."
The best part of his final season of intecollegiate football has yet to come, Sullivan believes. Making it to the Yates Cup for the first time since the national-championship season of 2009, he said, is unquestinably the highlight.
"In '09 I was on the team but I wasn't a starter," he said. "It's different, being able to contribute on the field."
Sullivan believes the team will make a better account of itself than it did in the regular schedule, when it lost 50-31 six weeks ago to the undefeated Mustangs at Western.
"We're crisp," he said. "I think we're ready to go. Plays are clicking, balls are getting wider, Billy's making more throws. Efficiency seems to be up across the board.
"It will be a much tighter game this time around. You can't make mistakes against a good team like that. You make one or two slip-ups like we did you can be finished early. We did battle back hard (the last time) but we were down 21 points right off the bat. This time we'll limit the mistakes and go from there."
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