"Say it again, the first-place York Lions" OUA In The Huddle with Mike Hogan - Week 1

"Say it again, the first-place York Lions" OUA In The Huddle with Mike Hogan - Week 1

The York Lions have long been the OUA's equivalent of a bye week. They were essentially the free space on the bingo card for opponents. A generation ago they actually went on a 47-game losing streak.

However for at least one glorious week the Lions are tied atop the OUA standings with perennial powerhouses Guelph, Western, McMaster and Laurier.

You can imagine how head coach Warren Craney feels about the Week One win.

"It was huge," Craney told In The Huddle. "We knew we had to come out of the gate strong. We know we're talented, we felt like we had to make a statement".

The coach emphasized he didn't mean his team wanted to make a statement by running up the score, but to show themselves they were capable of doing good things this season.

"We didn't mean to say 'Hey OUA, look out we're here', said the coach. "But we needed our younger kids to be able to say 'Hey OUA, look out we're here'".

Craney doubled as the head coach for Team Canada at the U-19 world championships held over the summer in China. The team beat the Americans 24-6 in the final to bring home the gold medal. Somewhat surprisingly the coach seemed almost as happy after York's 57-13 win over Waterloo on the weekend.

There was no gold medal involved. There was no playoff spot to be clinched. Essentially, it was a win over a Warriors team where the average age is 18.8 years old. Nonetheless, Craney was relieved his team didn't revert to an old habit that was around long enough to earn a nickname.

"We had what I called the York Curse", said a semi-serious coach. "When adversity hit our shoulders would slump."

It was something the team had to work its way out of by winning games. That meant recruiting players from winning programs, including the national team. It's worked, as over a dozen players on the York roster have experience at that level.

"These kids are winners, they have been winners at every level," beamed the coach. "They just need some confidence."

Putting up 57 points in a Week One win will do that, but with a tougher test against Laurier on the horizon the Lions may need every bit of the experience they've accumulated on those winning teams to pull off what would be regarded as a significant upset.

That winning mindset is something that the staff is counting on, and recruiting those Team Canada players to a program with a less than stellar record was only possible because of the Craney connection as a defensive coordinator, then head coach.

"The connection to the National Team has been paramount," admitted the coach. "I knew it was important because it was all we had. It got me into living rooms when I wouldn't have been able to get in otherwise."

The relationship to the national team also mined gold for York in the person of Kamau Peterson, who spent over a decade as a receiver in the CFL. In 2012 Noah Thorpe, now the D.C. in Montreal, was the head coach of the national team. Craney was running the defence when he met Peterson, who was coaching the receivers. In 2013 Craney was promoted to head coach and didn't even interview for a receivers coach. He was that impressed with Peterson's work.

The next trick was to get the Alberta resident on staff in Toronto.

"2014. Milan, Italy. We were there for two weeks and one night we cut the coaches loose. Kamau and I stayed back and did bed check on the players. Later we were sitting on the balcony, looking over this beautiful city. I talked Kamau into coming to training camp. Two and a half hours later I asked 'what if you stayed and coached the whole season."

It turned out to be a very, very important conversation. Peterson would soon be a Lion.

York has developed its own Alberta pipeline, sending key players east. There are also four full-time coaches on the team. Things are really looking up, but it gets a lot tougher this week when the opposition comes in the form of a high-flying group of Golden Hawks.

When asked about this week's game, Craney's disposition changed.

"Laurier is a real measuring stick," said a suddenly serious coach.

But it's exactly the type of game the program needs to evaluate how far it's come and how far it has to go. 

The O-Zone: The Lions put up 546 total yards in their win over the Warriors. Brett Hunchak threw for 331 yards and five TDs. He hit his brother Colton Hunchak for a 77-yard major in the second quarter.  Somewhat surprisingly, it hasn't been all that long since York scored at least 50 points in a game. They beat Carleton 50-34 on September 21, 2013, the Ravens first year of operation in this era. The Lions are excited by the tandem of Kayden Johnson and reigning OUA Rookie of the Year Jesse Amankwaa. The pair combined for 139 rushing yards. Waterloo moved the ball at times, with Lucas McConnell passing for 283 yards.

Laurier's defence showed why it's looked upon as one of the best in the country. The Hawks held Queen's to just 203 total yards of offence, forced five turnovers, recorded three sacks, scored a touchdown and forced a safety in a 37-18 win. The Gaels defence wasn't too shabby either, intercepting Julien John four times. It was John's first start since 2013. He was 10-24 for a modest 158 yards. Queen's has always been able to run the ball, but was held to just 81 net yards on the ground. Chris Osei-Kusi caught eight passes for 74 yards for the Gaels. Queen's has the bye week, then is on the road again at Guelph. That allows workers to put the finishing touches on the new Richardson Stadium, which sees its first action when Western visits on September 17th.

The Mustangs pummelled Windsor 78-6. There is still no definitive starting QB as Stevenson Bone and Chris Merchant split reps for Western. The Lancers lost five fumbles, threw three interceptions and had three punts blocked, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Malcolm Brown had two of the blocks and recovered the third. Both teams were able to get all of their players into the game. Ten Mustangs rushed the ball, while nine Lancers caught passes. Windsor actually won the time of possession 32:07 to 27:53.

Kevin MacNeill recorded his first win as an OUA head coach as Guelph beat the Blues 41-22. If the Gryphons were looking for a balanced attack they got it, passing for 287 yards while rushing for 283 more. They had a 36-1 lead at the half. Marcus Hobbs had a decent debut as Varsity's starting QB. The Blues Anthony Naccarato led all receivers in the game with eight catches for 96 yards. Toronto drew the short straw with the schedule maker, as they open with games at Guelph and McMaster before opening their home schedule against Carleton.

Like MacNeill, Greg Knox won his debut as McMaster's head coach. Asher Hastings threw four touchdown passes as the Marauders beat Carleton 40-10. Max Cameron and Dan Vandervoort each caught two touchdown strikes. Vandervoort's 86-yard catch and run opened the scoring. McMaster is known for its passing attack, but the defence may have won this game by making some big plays at key times. Special teams chipped in as well as Aaron Baker returned a kickoff 103 yards, yet didn't score. He caught it at his own one-yard line, eventually ran out of gas and was hauled down at the Carleton six.

Need to get up to speed on OUA football? Check out the 2016 OUA Uncovered Preview here.

Mike Hogan is a host on TSN Radio 1050 in Toronto, providing play-by-play commentary for the station's live coverage of the Toronto Argonauts.  Hogan is also a long-time member of the CIS Football Top 10 Committee and also serves as the Vice-President of the Football Reporters of Canada.

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