The long rebuild of the Waterloo Warriors football program is finally showing signs of fruit. Next up for the team is its first playoff appearance since 2003.
The Warriors will visit the Guelph Gryphons on Saturday in a rematch of a dramatic double-overtime thriller in the regular-season finale for both teams a week earlier. Guelph secured the No. 3 seed in the Ontario conference playoffs with the 47-44 victory while Waterloo took the sixth and final spot.
It has been a slow journey back to the post-season for the Warriors, who had their program suspended for a year in 2010 after nine players tested positive for steroids. Head coach and football operations manager Chris Bertoia took over in late 2014 and didn’t get his first win in the position until last year’s season opener.
Back-to-back 4-4 campaigns followed for the 2017 OUA coach of the year, with the latest .500 mark good enough for his squad to get back in the playoff mix.
“We’re not necessarily satisfied with that accomplishment,” said Bertoia, who won two Ontario titles as a Warriors tackle in the late 1990s. “We want to get after Guelph this weekend and hopefully turn the script on them and come out victorious.”
Last weekend, Guelph kicker Gabe Ferraro hit a 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation to force overtime and each team scored touchdowns on their first possessions. Ferraro gave the Gryphons (5-3) a three-point edge by hitting a 42-yarder and the Warriors couldn’t answer.
Waterloo’s top offensive threat is receiver Tyler Ternowski, who broke the OUA record for TD receptions in a season with 14. He finished the campaign with 1,159 receiving yards, good for second in U Sports history behind Western’s Andy Fantuz (1,300 yards in 2002).
The Warriors have come a long way since essentially starting from scratch in 2011.
“From the top down our university is now fully 100 per cent behind us as a football program, supporting us and wanting us to be successful,” Bertoia said. “Our alumni see that now and they’ve got back on board. So I think it’s a win-win for everybody to get to this point.”
The top-seeded and reigning Vanier Cup champion Mustangs (8-0) have a first-round bye. Western averaged 48 points a game and gave up a total of just 89 points on the season.
Bertoia spent over six years with the Western program before moving to Waterloo.
“I think their biggest strength is that they’re 100 per cent in OUA the deepest team in the conference,” he said. “There is not a drastic falloff at any of their positions if one of their starters is to go down. That’s the huge difference.”
The second-seeded Ottawa Gee-Gees (6-2) also have a first-round bye. This week’s other playoff game pits the No. 4 Carleton Ravens against the No. 5 McMaster Marauders in a battle of 5-3 teams.
McMaster announced the departure of head coach Greg Knox last Monday. The university had placed Knox on administrative leave after an incident in a Sept. 22 game at Wilfrid Laurier.
McMaster received an independent third-party report into the matter, which the school said involved allegations of harassment and threats of physical violence made against a sideline game official.
Citing privacy concerns, McMaster has not provided further details. Tom Flaxman and Scott Brady have shared head coaching duties on an interim basis and will continue to do so during the playoffs.
The Atlantic, Quebec and Canada West conferences will wrap up regular-season play this week. The post-season continues through the Nov. 24 Vanier Cup in Quebec City.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press