By: Monty Mosher
It didn't take long for Dale Wright to get off the canvas at the end of the 2017 university football season.
Last year will go down as a season of wildly contrasting emotions for the Acadia Axemen and Wright, a running back who claimed conference most valuable player honours in his first full season.
Despite a one-month layoff before facing the Saint Mary's Huskies in the Loney Bowl in Wolfville, the Axemen won 45-38 in a playoff shootout. It was a game that nearly was decided by forfeit in the midst of an eligibility dispute surrounding a Saint Mary's player.
But the game was played on a Tuesday, leaving the Axemen with little preparation to face the powerful Western Mustangs in the Uteck Bowl national semifinal. The Mustangs won 81-3, prompting another round of criticism of the quality of play in the AUS and questioning the fairness of giving the conference an automatic berth in a national semifinal.
Amid all of this, Wright, a force all season for the Axemen, injured his Achilles' tendon and ankle in the Saint Mary's game. He could do nothing to help his team against the Mustangs.
"It was a bit rough to see because you spend the whole season working and training with your teammates and then you're not being able to contribute to try and beat Western," the 21-year-old Wright, from Markham, Ont., said this week.
"I think it was good learning lesson for the team as a whole. We didn't really think it reflected our team. It was just a bad game, a bad day. It was bad circumstances that affected our team. No excuses, but it didn't reflect our team as a whole especially how we performed during the rest of the season."
Disappointed? Absolutely. Embarrassed? Not on your life.
Western had one of the best teams in the country in the past decade and went on to win the Vanier Cup with an undefeated record. They trampled plenty of opponents along the way, including perennial contender Laval by three touchdowns for the U Sports banner.
'Tuned out a lot of it'
Acadia showed up on short rest and took it on the chin. But they showed up. In those ashes are some seeds for 2018.
"We tuned out a lot of it," Wright said of the criticism after the season. "I believe personally the AUS has athletes that can compete with any other conference, it's just a matter of the depth among certain teams. But I think, overall, we can still compete.
"We've already put that behind us and used it as fuel to the fire in the sense that a lot of the young guys have been working hard. Some of the guys coming in realize what it takes to make it to the AUS championship and they use that to step it up and work a bit harder just so that we'll be able to beat the other conference and eventually go to the Vanier Cup."
With that, Wright has stayed in Wolfville in the off-season training around his work with an accounting firm in New Minas. His parents paid him a visit earlier this summer and he was able to show them the sights, but other than that it is daily training sessions that frequently begin at 6 a.m.
Wright appeared to come out of nowhere in 2017, but it wasn't entirely true. He had been with Axemen for two seasons, but injuries had kept him on the sidelines for the most part.
He was never a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school in Ontario, partly because he was on the small side at five-foot-eight and partly because he took a year off after graduation to work.
Broke 1,000 yards
With good health, he ran for 1,030 yards last season, becoming the first Axemen rusher since Brian Walling in 1986 to break the 1,000-yard mark.
He's powerful at 200 pounds, but also athletic enough to make tacklers miss. It was a stretch play where Wright had to leap over a fallen defender that led to his injury in the Loney Bowl.
He calls last season "a blur." He knew he was a capable and wanted to show what he could do but wasn't prepared to be singled out for attention.
"I'm more focused on the team as a whole and moving forward, and my role to continue being consistent," he said. "I did have a good season, I guess, but I can't really piece it all together right now.
"I knew it was possible, but I didn't really know the effect and impact it did have, how significant it was, until after the season. I wrote (becoming MVP) down. I made some goals and I wrote it down before the season, but one of the main goals was just being able to play every single game and help contribute in that way."
The goal. Wright says, is to be better this year than last.
"Absolutely I think I can be better in terms of finishing my runs, making more plays and being a bit more agile," he said.
'Counting the days'
The Axemen will lose some players off last year's team, but there is nothing to suggest they won't have the pieces to contend once again in the AUS. This year's AUS winner faces a road semifinal at the winner of the Quebec conference.
"We have a decent amount of guys back," said Wright. "I still think we have a decent amount of guys on the team who can contribute. We have a decent amount of leaders as well to keep the tradition going."
With August football now the norm in a five-team AUS, training camps are just weeks away. Teams can hit the field on Aug. 10.
"I'm counting the days," said Wright"