Burlington, Ont. (by Mike Hogan) - As the Windsor Lancers took to the field for their season opener against York, there was something different about them. There was a swagger, there was more than just confidence based on the usual pre-game adrenaline.
Oh ya, and they were wearing new helmets that made everyone sit up and take notice.
The man greatly responsible for those changes ended up winning his first game as an OUA head coach, 34-17, over the Lions. For the main ingredient of the new-look Lancers, J-P Circelli, he’s hoping it’s the first victory of many.
The man now running the program knows a thing or two about winning. He won three-consecutive Yates Cup as an offensive lineman at McMaster from 2001-05; won multiple championships after replacing Chris Bertoia as the head coach with the Western Jr. Mustangs, including provincial titles in 2017 and 2018; ran the powerhouse Catholic Central High School program after taking over from his father Mike; and for the last four seasons, was the offensive line coach for the Western Mustangs, who made back-to-back Vanier Cup appearances, including a national championship victory in 2017.
Simply put, his resume is tremendous.
For the first time at the U SPORTS level, he has the chance to run a program, and he’s putting his stamp on it quickly.
“Every day that we meet, we talk about different aspects of ‘The Lancer Way,’”, Circelli told ‘In The Huddle.’ “We (the coaches) have to let them know just how much we care about them.”
And exactly what are the major tenets of the “Lancer Way?”
“Respect, humility, accountability, and credibility,” explained the coach. “I think the easy part is to say that we have to get better players. We do have to increase our talent level, but we’ve talked about culture. How do winning pro teams do it every year?”
The cliché is that successful teams are like a family. If that’s the case, the Lancers are a cinch to be contenders for years to come.
Circelli brought his brother Joe to be his offensive coordinator. He’s a former offensive lineman at Western who spent some time with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts before most recently being the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator for the Mustangs. Also heading to Windsor is their father Mike, who has coached at virtually every level of football and has been successful at each stop, most recently as the defensive line coach at Western before Joe took over.
The three are living under the same roof in Windsor, at least for the time being.
“Joe and I are both building homes here,” J-P Circelli explained. “Our father bought a home where some of the coaches are living. We knew were going to do this together, we just had to convince our families that this was the right fit.”
It is a bit of a strange dynamic, the Circelli boys living with their dad again, with J-P being his father’s boss. He’s okay with that.
“He’s won a lot more than all of us combined,” said an obviously proud son. “He’s coached everywhere, at every level. He’s been a coordinator on offence, defence, and on special teams, but is best at how he’s handled people.”
That influence has rubbed off on his son, who has been more than accommodating in two lengthy chats with ‘In The Huddle’. The head coach is thrilled to have the opportunity, and is someone who listened to people he trusted about taking the job, including the program’s former head coach, Joe D’Amore.
“We worked together on Ontario and Canada Cup teams,” said Circelli of his friend. “When he stepped down (as the Lancers head coach) he let me know and he thought it was a good fit. The only team that showed serious interest in me was Windsor. I don’t know if I was their first choice, but that really doesn’t matter.”
He’s already put his stamp on the program, not only with the opening week win, but with new helmets that feature a stylized “W” across the top, similar to the familiar design of the Michigan Wolverines, who play in Ann Arbor, about 70 km due west of Windsor.
“We wanted to come up with something with the uniforms, especially with the helmets,” said the coach. “It’s a new look. It’s about starting things out differently.”
In Week One it was mission accomplished as they recorded a win, and looked good while doing it. The Lancers have a chance to make it 2-0 this weekend in Toronto as they visit the Varsity Blues. This is a program that looks to be trending upward, which could lead to even more parity in an already tightly-grouped conference.
The O Zone:
WINDSOR 34, YORK 17
The Lancers rode a strong second half and the legs of Jacob Savoni to their win over the Lions. The OUA’s Offensive Player of the Week carried the ball 14 times for 179 yards and three touchdowns, including an 86-yard run early in the fourth that effectively put the game out of reach. The other main weapon on offence was Queen’s transfer Chris Osei-Kusi, who caught eight passes for 98 yards. Griffin Fenton hit both of his field-goal attempts. For the Lions, Brett Hunchak threw for 325 yards and a pair of TDs. The main target was Kadeem Hemmings with six catches for an even 100 yards. It was a sloppy game at times, with the teams combining for 35 penalties for 242 yards.
WESTERN 32, LAURIER 19
After a sluggish first quarter that saw Laurier take a 3-1 lead, Western scored 14 points to open the second quarter and coasted to a win. A 62-yard TD pass from Chris Merchant to Justin Nickson early in the second quarter got the Mustangs rolling. Laurier won most of the statistical categories, but couldn’t capitalize on their chances. Connor Carusello passed for 360 yards and a pair of TDs. Brentyn Hall finished with 132 yards on seven catches, the highlight being a 71-yard major. Laurier had five sacks and Alfred Green was a machine with 2.5 QB takedowns and three tackles for a loss. Western turned the game around with the Nickson TD followed shortly thereafter by a Jake Andrews blocked punt that Brett Ellerman recovered for another touchdown. Laurier won the time of possession 34:43-25:17, but took 17 penalties for 160 yards; something you can’t afford to do against Western, especially when they’re held to just 288 total yards on offence.
WATERLOO 33, TORONTO 30
The game was dominated by a scrambling QB who threw four touchdown passes, but that quarterback was Clay Sequeira, not Tre Ford. The Blues pivot threw for 471 yards and four TDs, while adding 71 rushing yards, but the Blues came up just short of pulling off the upset. Ford threw for 225 yards, but was intercepted twice in the first half, equaling the total number of picks he threw all of last year. The Blues did a nice job for the most part of keeping Ford in the pocket. Tre’s brother Tyrell had an interception and returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown en route to being named the OUA’s Special Teams Player of the Week. Dion Pellerin had a big game for the Warriors, rushing for 113 yards and adding 50 more through the air, including a 43-yard reception that led to the touchdown that essentially iced the game. Nolan Lovegrove caught eight passes for 135 yards and a TD. Last year, Tyler Ternowski of the Warriors led the country in receiving yards, but was limited in this one to 29 yards on five catches. The Warriors led 21-3 after one quarter and 23-3 at half time before Varsity stormed back.
CARLETON 18, QUEEN’S 12
The Ravens and Gaels provided a highly-entertaining game, despite a relatively low score. Defence ruled the day as the Ravens posted five sacks and 10 tackles for a loss, while Queen’s countered with the same number of TFLs with one fewer sack. Carleton’s Jack Cassar recorded 10 tackles and a TFL and was recognized with the OUA’s Defensive Player of the Week. Carleton won despite 20 penalties for 121 yards, while Queen’s was flagged 10 times for 90 yards. It marked the head coaching debut at Queen’s for Steve Snyder, who erupted after the game’s penultimate play, feeling there was pass interference in the end zone on a third-down play, but no flag was thrown. Carleton turned the ball over three time, all on fumbles, while Queen’s played turnover-free football. The game featured a pair of new starting QBs – James Keenan of the Gaels and Tanner DeJong of Carleton – neither of whom looked out of place. Nathan Carter rushed for 104 yards on 23 carries for Carleton.
McMASTER 25, GUELPH 10
After a disappointing year offensively in 2018, it appears McMaster’s offence is back with the return of Head Coach Stefan Ptaszek. The Marauders amassed over 400 total yards in their win at Guelph. The Gryphons season could not have started any better as Maine transfer Clark Barnes returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, highlighted by a 360-degree spin move in traffic, but the Gryphs struggled offensively after that, amassing just 240 yards on the day. The mobile Theo Landers was held to 178 yards passing, and just 30 yards rushing. Laval transfer Dante Djan took over for two series at the end of the third quarter before new Head Coach Ryan Sheahan went back to Landers for the rest of the game. Mac’s Andreas Dueck hit nine different receivers and finished with 298 passing yards and a touchdown. Tyson Middlemost and Michael Bazzo divided 10 catches and 142 yards almost equally.