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Next year starts tomorrow for the Golden Gaels
Posted: September 26th, 2014 @ 5:30pm
The season began with some apprehension. Almost all of the players who had achieved all-star status the previous year were gone. The one star player who came back ultimately "did neither him nor the team much good."
If that sounds familiar to followers of the Queen's Golden Gaels, perhaps it's because words to that effect have been said and written a lot this fall, expressed in many ways to describe the unprecedented loss of experienced football players as the team embarked on the current intercollegiate season.
In fact, though, they were written about a team of almost 60 years ago, the 1957 Gaels, the last Queen's football team to experience a winless season.
In his book, Gael Force, author Merv Daub described the plight of that group that finished 0-6 and scored just 30 points all season. Its only returning player of note was Ron Stewart, the future Hall of Fame back: "As an indication of just how bad things were,' Daub wrote, "it was reported at the time that Stewart started the season needing only a few points to eclipse Pep Leadlay's all-time scoring total, but Stewart got exactly six points in that season - and wound up still trailing Leadlay when he finally left Queen's for the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1958."
It's not certain that the current edition of the Gaels, the one that will face the McMaster Marauders Saturday in Hamilton, will end the season without a victory; far from it, in fact, unless Ontario University Athletics repeals the schedule and rewrites it without a date with the York Lions. The flashback serves, however, to underline the monumental task the team faced this year, as it sought to replace a dozen all-stars, former all-stars or all-Canadians.
The perspective also suggests that anyone who expected a lot more of this particular team than we're now seeing was way out of line.
Coaches put on a brave face in training camp, as they must. If it's going to descend, harsh reality will do so in due course; there's no sense sucking the optimism out of even the bleakest situation so early. The stated objective, a playoff berth, was modest-sixth place in an 11-team league.
Then came the season opener at Windsor, a game where the Gaels would score 39 points and twice come from behind for a victory, albeit one that has since been revoked. Maybe we do have something here, people thought. The home opener spawned more hope-another comeback, 30 points into the fourth quarter. Hmmm. Not bad at all.
All those points, however, were masking the fatal flaw of the team, its young defence, a group that allowed 502 yards at Windsor, and 631 against Ottawa. The fourth-quarter comeback staged by the Gee-Gees peeled off what remained of the fading makeup, and the blemishes were there for all to see in the subsequent loss to Western, and the 66-0 debacle at Guelph. The one touchdown in the last nine quarters of football was not much behind which to hide.
Should we expect more of a defensive corps that included five freshmen, and another five who had never started a game before this fall? Of course not, but several years among the league's elite made us hope it wouldn't be so bad, and the early success of the first game and three quarters only made the rose-coloured tint in the glasses of the faithful that much deeper.
What does that mean for the second half of the season?
The Gaels have to take care of their most precious assets, and right now that's their first- and second-year players. That task has two fundamental components: learning the technical elements of their trade, even if by trial and error, and doing so without allowing every drop of confidence to evaporate in the process. It's one thing to learn from one's mistakes; it's quite another to get discouraged from the experience or, worse, comfortable in a losing atmosphere.
Managing the learning process should be top of list for the coaching staff from here to the end of the year and make no mistake: it will be a delicate tightrope, letting the young players play enough to learn, without letting them make so many mistakes they get disheartened.
Can the Gaels get there? No less an authority than Western Mustangs coach Greg Marshall believes they can. After his team beat Queen's two weeks ago, he spoke of how, conceptually, the Gaels' young players are getting it. "You watch the tape and you say, 'You know what? They're young in a lot of positions but they're in the right spots. Sometimes physically they're not there yet (to make the play) but they're in the right spots.'"
Losing seasons are part of sport. Indeed some, Queen's coach Pat Sheahan among them, believe they're a necessary part of the growth cycle leading to success. Losing teaches tough lessons, he said after the game in Guelph. "Unfortunately, the ones that hit you right between the eyes are the ones that you remember."
Sometimes, the talent just isn't there. After that fateful 1957 season, Queen's wasn't good for another four years. suggesting an almost complete-but not total in the days of unlimited eligibility-turnover in personnel was needed to turn the corner. Similarly, after an 0-4 start in 2004, it took virtually a complete roster turnover to establish the team that won the Vanier Cup in 2009.
Three other times in the intervening 57 years the Gaels have begun a season 0-4 (all in the last 20 years, by the way): 1994; 1999 and 2000-when they actually went 0-5 out of the gate.
One year after the poor start of '94, the Gaels were in the Dunsmore Cup final; two years after they stumbled out of the game in '99 and 2000, they were in the Yates Cup game, thanks largely to the arrival of Tom Denison, he of the Hec Crighton talent and boundless confidence.
Whether this group has the requisite skill to perform that kind of turnaround may not be revealed for some time. Whether it has the will to persevere through hardship will be evident much sooner, even as early as Saturday in Hamilton. Do the Gaels muster the wherewithal to perform well, even if in defeat? Or are they essentially the zombies they were on the sideline last Saturday in Guelph, heads down with nary a player offering support to a teammate? Will they play to the end, or sleepwalk their pass routes, as some were doing by the end of that game? If those issues arise, how will the coaches react to such displays?
From here to the end, the outcomes are less important than how they are achieved.
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