CIS Countdown 2011: Laurier Golden Hawks

In 50 words or less: The perennial OUA contenders Golden Hawks had an unusually subpar regular season before coming alive in the playoffs. When healthy this team has the potential to build on the playoff performance and become a legitimate threat for the Yates Cup.

Burning questions:

1) CAN Shane Kelly stay healthy enough to play a full season and work with a deep receiving core?

2) WILL the loss of key starters along the OL allow Kelly the time to hit his receivers?

3) CAN the Hawks establish a run game, something that was missing last season?

4) WILL Laurier be able to take advantage of a favourable schedule, playing all the top contenders at home?

2010 recap: 4-4 with an asterisk, fourth in the OUA (won the fourth place tiebreaker over Guelph). Won their first playoff game at home over Guelph, 42-10, then lost in the conference semi-finals to the Ottawa Gee-Gees 32-31.

There were high expectations for the Golden Hawks to perform last season; however, a rash of injuries to key starters, such as NCAA transfer QB Shane Kelly, pushed the team backwards. They ended the regular season at 4-4, the first time the Hawks have not recorded a winning record since 2002. (Of course, it would have been a winning record had they not used ineligible DL Dave Montoya in the game against Toronto, a situation covered here last fall.)

Despite the pedestrian record, with the return of Kelly in the playoffs, the Laurier team found some life. And the final game of the year was arguably the best game for the Hawks, losing only on a last second field goal to the conference-leading Gee-Gees.

Head coach Gary Jeffries said the team has a bitter taste left in their mouths following that close loss to Ottawa in the playoffs, and the veteran squad is motivated to make a return to the Yates Cup this season.

“There’s great anticipation this year,” Jeffries said, “the 65 kids returning really dedicated themselves during the offseason.”

When asked which matchups were most important for his team this year Jeffries said with conviction that their Week One contest was all that mattered right now, and they will address each opponent as they come up in the schedule. “We have York circled on our calendar and that’s it. We don’t put the cart before the horse.”

Departures: LB Giancarlo Rapanaro, OL Michael Knill, OL Matthew Vonk, REC Dustin Zender, REC Vince Luciani, DB Mitch Nicholson, DB Patrick McGarry, DL Steve McCormack, DL Steve Ples, DL Paul Hancock.

Arrivals: QB James Fracas, FB Jordan Schultz, K Ronnie Pfeffer, HB Dillon Campbell, HB Ashton Rochester, HB Devon Egerter, OL Brent Wilson, OL Ryan Hamilton, DL Nate Corbin. A full list of recruits can be found here.

Keep an eye on: QB Shane Kelly. Last year he had injury concerns and was learning the Canadian game, but if he can stay healthy, Jeffries says he has the ability to become one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. WR Shawmad Chambers, who also had to deal with injury concerns of his own last season, is the biggest threat on offence for the Hawks and the tandem of Kelly and Chambers would be a formidable duo should they be given the chance to play together.

LBs Mitchell Bosch and Dan Bishop have been standouts with the team, both attending the East-West Bowl last year. The loss of Giancarlo Rapanaro will leave a linebacker hole to be filled and Bosch and Bishop will be looked to in place of him. The return of DB Shane Herbert and DL George Kourtesiotis following trips to CFL training camps will be key additions to strengthening the Hawks Defence.

Coach & coordinators: Head coach Gary Jeffries, offensive coordinator Ryan Pyear, defensive coordinator Ron VanMoerkeke. The Hawks are happy about the return of Barry Pyear as running backs coach once again, former Golden Hawk player Scott Evans working with the offensive line, and John Katsauoni, the team’s first kicking coach specifically.

Off-the-field factors: Following the scandal up the street at the University of Waterloo there were questions about whether that spilled over to Laurier. A scheduling issue involving the CCES testers that caused six randomly selected Laurier players to miss drug testing did not help to dispel the myths that some Hawks were somehow involved. In the end, the team had 65 players tested, however, and all the tests came back clean. It seems the Laurier program was able to shed any implications of being tied to the Warriors' woes.

From last season’s preview: Luke Dotto said “this might be the best opportunity the Hawks have at a Yates for a few seasons.” They didn't make it to the conference final, but might have another shot this year.

2011 outlook: The Golden Hawks have a lot of potential, and as long as the injury bug doesn’t bite once more they should push the top teams and put themselves in the conversation for the Yates Cup. This is a veteran squad that only lost 4 starters in total from last season. Playing arguably their toughest games at home (Western, MAC, Ottawa) will be an advantage for the team. The Hawks can realistically land within the top three in the conference by the end of the regular season and secure a home playoff game.

Swing games: Laurier hosts Western in week 4, and then Laurier’s Homecoming, celebrating the schools 100th anniversary, is against Ottawa the next weekend. The homecoming game will be important to show where the Hawks stand in the conference this year, and will be a test to see how they bounce back from a challenging game against the Mustangs. Laurier played MAC tough last season, losing their lead in the second half in a narrow loss. The Marauders are a team to watch this season so hosting them late in the season, on week 7, will show if the Hawks are ready for another playoff push.

Stock up or stock down: Up. The Hawks had a string of bad luck in the form of injuries last season but in the final game proved their potential, pushing the Brad Sinopoli-led Gee-Gees to the limit. Staying healthy is a big “if” in any season, but this team can push for the top of the conference should they field their starting core every week.
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