Season openers set for Saturday afternoon in Antigonish and Wolfville
By: Dwayne Tingley
Jeff Cummins has been pacing up and down football sidelines long enough to realize silence is often the best team policy
When asked for an assessment of the upcoming season, the veteran coach of the Acadia Axmen declares there will be "no bulletin board material" coming from him and he praises his opponents.
The league will be "a dog fight and any team can finish in first place," said Cummins, who has been at the helm of the Axemen for 17 seasons and is the dean of AUS coaches.
Such is life in the Atlantic University Sport football conference, where all five teams respect each other greatly and victories and losses are never taken for granted.
There have been three different champions during the past five seasons and upsets are never regarded as such as because every game is a grinding battle until the final whistle.
Regular season league play kicks off on Saturday, Aug. 24, when the defending champion St Francis Xavier Men host the Mount Allison Mounties. Game time is 2 p.m. at Oland Stadium in Antigonish, N.S.
Bishop's Gaiters, the lone team from Quebec in the Atlantic conference, visit the Axemen in the other opening day match-up. Game time is 3 p.m. at Raymond Field in Wolfville, N.S.
The Saint Mary's Huskies have a bye on opening week. They begin their season on Aug. 31 in Sackville, N.B. against the Mounties.
St. Francis Xavier X-Men
X-Men head coach Gary Waterman won't let his team reflect on its 2018 championship season, which saw them finish second during the regular season with a 6-2 record before defeating the Axemen 33-10 in a semifinal game and the Huskies 33-9 in the Loney Bowl title game.
"We are once again honoured to be entering the season as the defending AUS champions, but we know that our accomplishment last year doesn't carry much weight once the 2019 season begins," said Waterman, who has been guiding the X-Men for 11 seasons and has an overall regular season and playoff record of 47-47.
"I'm looking forward to getting to work and seeing what this talented group of student-athletes is able to accomplish this season."
The X-Men have eight starters returning from last season, including quarterback Bailey Wasdal.
As a rookie from Calgary, Wasdal completed 61.7 per cent (121 for 196 and 1,494 yards) passes. The business student threw nine touchdowns and was victimized for just four interceptions.
The offensive line in anchored by Jonathan Zamora, who has been an AUS all-star in each of the past two seasons and was selected as a second team all-Canadian in 2018.
Receivers Greg McDonald and Isaac Fagnan combined to haul in almost 40 receptions for 650 yards last season.
St. Francis Xavier will have six starters back on its defensive unit, including middle linebacker Gordon White, who recorded 51 tackles last season. He is a Hamilton Tiger-Cats draft pick heading into his final season with the X-Men.
Linebacker Ben von Muehldorfer racked up 27 tackles and an interception last season.
All-star punter/kicker Keiran Burnham is also back in the fold this year.
Saint Mary's Huskies
Huskies head coach James Colzie admits his team is "talented and still has a foul taste in our mouths from our poor showing" in the Loney Bowl loss to the X-Men last year. The championship game setback followed a 7-1 record during the regular season.
"It will be important for us at Sant Mary's to stay healthy and play our best ball in November," he said.
The Huskies have a veteran-laden roster which features all returnees on special teams as well as 11 players who have previously started on offence and 10 on defence.
"Our expectation is to always win an AUS championship," Colzie said. "Historically, we have more than any team in the conference. It is important that this team takes it one game at a time. It is a veteran group with some great first-year kids."
The fourth-year head coach emphasized the need to protect the football and the team's new quarterback – Josh Shim, a six-foot-two Division I transfer from George State. Colzie is anxious to see how quickly the rookie adjust to the Canadian game.
"We have to get the ball into the hands of our numerous playmakers," he said, noting the presence of all-star receivers Shedler Fervius (who was AUS rookie of the year), Liam O'Brien and running back Tyrique Dixon-Bowden.
"We need to be much improved on both sides of the ball in running the football and stopping the run," Colzie said.
He expects the Mounties to continue being one of the top defences in U SPORTS with top five performances in pass defence, turnovers and defensive touchdowns.
The Axemen have 68 returning players, including all of their all-stars, as they aim to improve on their 5-3 campaign in 2018.
Coach Cummins said "ball security and special teams" will be the key to their success this season.
"I expect our team to be relentless, play hard, play smart and play together," said Cummins, whose teams have won five conference championships and he's been selected coach of the year five times and national coach of the year twice.
"Our all-stars are expected to be all-stars," he added.
Defensive lineman Thomas Grant was named a second-team all-Canadian last year. In total, the Axemen fielded eight AUS all-stars last year, including quarterback Hunter Guenard, running back Dale Wright, receiver Cordell Hastings, offensive linemen Nathan Heide and Drew Seldon, linebacker Bailey Feltmate, cornerback Garvin Cius and defensive linemen Anderson Recker and Grant.
Mount Allison Mounties
Peter Fraser is looking forward to his second season as head coach of the Mounties. They finished in fourth place last season with a 2-6 record
"I feel the AUS is a very competitive conference and has some of the best parity in the country," Fraser said. "Every game should be up for grabs and it should be a great season."
Fraser expects the Mounties to have a strong ground game, led by a veteran group on the offensive line. He's also looking forward to seeing one member of Mount Allison's young group of quarterbacks to emerge as a leader.
"We are very young, but have enough talent to be in the playoffs if we get some bounces our way, but we are looking to retain and develop our roster and get better every game," the coach noted.
The Mounties will have 50 returning players, including defensive ends Damian Halstead and Marshall Esokpunwu. The Mounties will also feature several highly-touted rookies, including defensive backs Lucas Cormier and Daniel Bell and quarterback Julian Wytinck, a former high school player of the year in British Columbia.
The Gaiters are entering their third season in the Atlantic conference and head coach Chérif Nicolas is seeing steady improvement in the team that has won just one of its first 16 games.
"Each week we want to be better than the week before," Nicolas said. "We want to be the best version of the Bishop's Gaiters we can be each and every rep."
The Gaiters have 45 returnees, including explosive wide receiver Nathan Walker, who was an all-star last season. They also have 27 newcomers who are expected to make an impact in their freshmen seasons.
"The AUS is a special conference where every year it's not easy to gauge where each team will end up," Nicolas said. "We are a competitive conference and I really think it is up for grabs. Who can execute the best when it matters is what will determine wins and losses."
The 2019 regular season gets underway Saturday with a pair of games. Mount Allison will travel to Antigonish to play StFX to kick off the season at 2 p.m. while Bishop's will travel to Wolfville, N.S. to face Acadia in a 3 p.m. start.
The Saint Mary's Huskies have a bye in Week 1.
For the full 2019 AUS football schedule, click here.
All games will be webcast live at www.AUStv.ca.