Thursday, August 28, 2008

CIS Countdown #2: Ottawa Gee-Gees

Fast facts: In five years, someone might look back at the 2007 Gee-Gees and wonder how they managed not to be in the Yates Cup. They were unbeaten in the regular season, riding off the Josh Sacobie-led passing game and the No. 1 defence in the land. They ended up on the wrong side of one of the most random seasons in OUA history, giving up two long Michael Faulds-to-David Clayton and losing 23-16 to Western in the OUA semi-fina.

Sacobie has lost two of his best blockers and the Gee-Gees lost their defensive co-ordinator, but there's enough continuity to ride out the transition. Fans of eerie coincidences should be aware of the similarities to the Gee-Gees' last Vanier Cup in 2000. That team also had a fifth-year QB and was looking to ease the sting of a season where they failed to win the conference after running the table in the regular season. Oddly enough, these Gee-Gees also face the same scenario that they did in 2006 -- opening vs. Western, the team who ended their season the previous fall.

Former Hec Crighton Trophy nominee Ivan Birungi has come aboard and the Gee-Gees, who several players take boxing lessons this summer as a motivational technique, look to be locked and loaded.

Coach: Denis Piché (7th season). Piché has restored the Gee-Gees to the same level the program was at in the late '90s, an era that was capped off with a Vanier Cup win over Regina in 2000. The Gee-Gees might struggle for media and fan attention in Hockey Country, but being in a large city with a good grass-roots football community hasn't hurt them when it comes to putting together a good coaching staff and a recruiting base on each side of the provincial border.

Co-ordinators: Chris Coulson, co-offensive; Blaine Scatcherd, co-offensive; Phil Roberts, defensive; Steve Gauvreau, special teams.

Enrolment: 30,882

Alumni in the CFL: Lions WR Adam Nicolson, Eskimos DE Adrian Baird, 'Riders DB Scott Gordon, 'Riders LS Jocelyn Frenette, Blue Bombers DB Richard Holness; DB Delroy Clarke is on the Toronto Argonauts practice roster.

Famous non-football alumni: Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek; The Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee; celebrity fitness trainer Jeanette Jenkins; the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings; author Carol Shields; former federal cabinet minister Allan Rock (now uOttawa's president).

Three-year record: 21-3 (one of four teams with 20 regular-season wins since the start of 2005)

2007 unit rankings: 2nd offence, 1st defence

Key losses: C Kevin Kelly, G Naim El-Far, LB Mike Cornell, DBs Alexandre Hoad, Delroy Clarke and Steven Holness; K-P Ara Tchobanian. Tchobanian's booming kickoffs practically served as a 13th defender for the Gee-Gees the past few years.

Returning starters: 10 offence, 10 defence

Players to watch: As noted, Sacobie, Regina QB Teale Orban and McGill's Matt Connell are in a race to see who can become the all-time CIS leader in passing yards; Orban and Sacobie each have a shot at the touchdown-pass record. Sacobie is 2,260 yards and 24 TDs off the marks held, respectively, by ex-McMaster star Ben Chapdelaine and Saint Mary's legend Chris Flynn.

LT Kyle Kirkwood, who lost his 2007 season to a knee injury, is back to protect the QB's blind side. Tailbacks Davie Mason and Justin Hammond combined for more than 1,000 yards last season. Sacobie and his heir apparent, Brad Sinopoli, will have mostly the same receiving group. Birungi can create matchup problems for most teams, or at least he did in his Acadia days.

The Gee-Gees were hurt by graduation in the secondary, but Burnaby, B.C., native Chayce Elliott, who previously played safety of NCAA D-2 Western Washington, could help out at the halfback or safety spots once he becomes eligible to play midway through the regular season. Veteran DLs Tyler Dawe, Sébastien Tetrault and Dan Kennedy should help them get pressure on the passer while only bringing four or five rushers, which would do a retooled secondary a friggin' favour. Former Queen's star Ian Hazlett should finally join Joe Barnes at linebacker after missing last season with a knee injury.

For future reference: The Gee-Gees are one of the toughest team in the OUA for a player straight from high school to get a foothold with. One rookie to root for is running back Sean Lajeunnesse, who was Mr. Everything when he helped the St. Mark Lions dominate Ottawa-area competition over the past three years. Luigi DeLillis, who kicked the winning field goal in the final minute for the Ottawa Jr. Riders of the Québec Junior Football League championship game last season, came into training camp expected to compete for a starting position.  

Schedule (swing games in bold):
Sept. 1 @ Western
Sept. 6 York
Sept. 13 @ McMaster
Sept. 20 Waterloo
Sept. 27 @ Windsor
Oct. 4 Laurier
Oct. 11 @ Queen's

Oct. 18 Toronto

The Gee-Gees miss Guelph in the OUA's schedule rotation. They could see each other in the playoffs, though.

Final analysis: It's almost as if the less you hear out of Ottawa, the better. This is easily the Yates Cup favourite; as a dot-orger put it, "The Gee Gees are the real deal, they're back, and they're pissed off."

Teams that have been for a few seasons and have senior standouts on offence can often be taken for granted, but the difference here is the Gee-Gees are not a soft team, especially on defence. That might explain the boxing lessons -- perhaps there was a feeling they were getting a little too technocratic and clincial last season and needed to get back to playing more off emotion, the way their 2006 team that was a couple minutes from a Vanier Cup trip did.

The OUA playoffs aren't a cakewalk. The possiblity a long layoff caused by closing the regular season vs. Toronto and then having a first-round bye won't do any favours for the Gee-Gees' focus, but great teams find a way not to need alibis. An Ottawa-Laval matchup in the Vanier Cup -- hey, some of us wouldn't mind it if those teams were in the same conference again -- seems like a decent bet.

(Contributors to this preview: Rob Pettapiece, Duane Rollins.)

No comments: