London, Ont. - After exorcising their 2016 Yates Cup demons last year by defeating the Laurier Golden Hawks, the Western Mustangs have the chance to do the same with their 2015 foes when they welcome the Guelph Gryphons to TD Stadium in the 111th edition of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) football championship, presented by Milk2Go Sport.
Winners of two of the last three Yates Cups, the Gryphons and Mustangs have lengthy track records of success – combining for 35 championships all-time –a pedigree that they’ve put on display once again during the 2018 season and into their respective playoff pushes. Western went undefeated for the second straight year, while Guelph has turned around the 2-3 start to win five straight since then. And while their paths did not cross en route to these respective records, they will do so on the most fitting stage after both teams knocked off their semifinal foes from the nation’s capital.
This isn’t the first time that the two teams have met with championship stakes on the line, as the two remaining squads also matched up back in 2015. That year marked the first of four consecutive Yates Cup appearance for the purple and white – a streak that is still ongoing – but it was also their first of two straight losses in the provincial finale. Guelph proved to be the victors in that one for the first time since 1996, defeating Western by a 23-17 final, but the formerly vanquished will be aiming to flip the script when they host the Gryphs’ in 2018.
Despite getting off to that slower star this season, the Gryphons have hit their stride as the games have gone on, ending the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the province. The defence has long been considered one of the best, ranking third with an average of just 21.9 points surrendered, but one of the main reasons the team has grown into a Yates Cup contender is thanks to their advances on the other side of the ball; most notably from their run-happy rookie, Jean-Paul Cimankinda (Ottawa, Ont.).
The first-year phenom burst onto the scene in the latter half of the season, picking up four-straight 100+ yard games dating back to Week 8, including a 256-yard, three-touchdown performance in the quarterfinals against Waterloo. He has established himself as a bruising force in the backfield and a focal point for the Gryphons, who have brought their season average up to nearly 30 points per game.
But while Cimankinda has sparked a second-half resurgence for the second-ranked run game, the Mustangs’ have been galloping in full stride all season long, pacing the conference with over 270 rushing yards per contest. Not only can they roll out the conference’s top rusher, Cedric Joseph (Montreal, Que.), but an entire crew of capable runners that have contributed to the team’s leading ranks on the ground. Behind Joseph lies last year’s first-team all-star and all-time Western rushing leader Alex Taylor (Winnipeg, Man.), as well as the always-productive Trey Humes (Ajax, Ont.); each of whom will be lining up against one of the OUA’s best against the run.
Should the Mustangs veer away from this strength of the Gryphons, who surrender just 123.5 yards against on the ground, they can turn to another three-headed monster in the passing game. Harry McMaster (Niagara Falls, Ont.) and his team-leading seven touchdowns is chief among the aerial options, but Chris Merchant (Calgary, Alta.) is also flanked by Cole Majoros (Fort Erie, Ont.) and Brett Ellerman (Calgary, Alta.), who combined for another seven touchdowns for the fifth-ranked passing team in the league. All-told, the trio reeled in all but three of Merchant’s 17 majors on the year, which put the quarterback second in the conference. And with someone as comfortable, confident, and capable under centre as the reigning Vanier Cup MVP, the Mustangs appear well-prepared for another lengthy battle in their OUA season finale; a battle that has seen several close finishes over the years.
The reigning Yates Cup champions that got the better of the Gryphs’ in their quest for the Cup meeting a year ago – a semifinal clash that saw Western earn the 66-12 victory – but it wasn’t long ago that Guelph pushed Western to the limit in an instant overtime thriller. Just like they had in the early going this year, when Carleton fell just shy against the Mustangs in their respective season debuts, Western hit an early-season speed bump in last year’s Labour Day affair with Guelph. Merchant was the best Mustang on the field in that one, with his 470 total yards guiding his squad to a 41-34 OT win, while the Gryphons saw significant gains from Zeph Fraser (Mississauga, Ont.), who picked up 143 yards and two touchdowns.
Fraser has continued to be a key contributor in the team’s passing game this year, it is teammate Kade Belyk (Regina, Sask.) who topped the red and yellow in the aerial attack this year. The fourth-year receiver hauled in 425 yards and five majors to carry the receiving corps. Joining the duo as a further weapon in the Gryphons’ offence is Kian Schaffer-Baker (Mississauga, Ont.), who despite missing three games this season because of injury, managed to collect 74 yards per game to lead the team, and is capable of being a difference-maker each time the ball is thrown his way.
For the Gryphons, however, their attack is less about the pass and more about the run, with the likes of dual-threat QB Theo Landers (Maple Ridge, B.C.) joining the aforementioned Cimankinda to lead the charge. The senior pivot maneuvered his way to nearly 2,000 combined yards on the year, with more than a quarter coming on the ground. His 526 yards rushing led the team, while his 65.8 YPG ranked ninth in the OUA. Alongside the team’s lead back and the work of fellow freshman Juwan Jeffrey (Brampton, Ont.), the Gryphons will surely look to their truculent trio to excel, even against a rush defence that topped the OUA with just 94.9 yards per game surrendered.
Certainly, both teams have the offensive skill-set to break the game wide open, but while the offensive weapons are plentiful, the top-of-the-line defences may be the true determinant of this year’s Yates Cup championship.
Two of the most elite defenders in the country are right at the heart of these juggernauts, with Western’s Fraser Sopik (Toronto, Ont.) and Guelph’s Luke Korol (Lynden, Ont.) adding on further stat-stuffing campaigns to their storied careers. More than their takedown abilities, which saw both lead their teams in tackles – or in the case of Korol, all of U SPORTS – they also buoyed the overall efforts that saw their teams rank first and third in points against, respectively. The two remaining teams, overall, combined for 23 interceptions, 46 sacks, and an ever-present ability to put their fingerprints on the game each time they step on the field.
Add on to these star-studded lineups two of the best kickers in the country – Western’s Marc Liegghio (Woodbridge, Ont.) and Guelph’s Gabe Ferraro (Mississauga, Ont.), the latter of whom is tied atop the all-time U SPORTS ranks for career field goals – and whether the two sides manage to find the endzone or are forced to split the uprights, they’ll have the ability to showcase all-star talent at every turn.
It’s familiar territory for one and a return to glory for another, but when the Gryphons and Mustangs step onto the TD Stadium field, these explosive offences and dynamic defences will go head-to-head to see if it will be a repeat of three years ago, with Guelph doubling down on their most recent Yates Cup appearance, or if the Mustangs will add a second straight conference title to their decorated history.
The teams are set to lock horns at TD Stadium in London, Ont. at the home of the Mustangs, with kickoff scheduled for 1:00pm. The 111th Yates Cup, presented by Milk2Go Sport, will air live on CHCH.