BURNABY — Mike Rigell says he knows how much better his winless Red Leafs football team is than the one which dropped its conference opener to Central Washington 40-7 back on September 17.
That game, of course, was played at Terry Fox Field within the friendly confines of SFU Stadium, and upon its completion came the realization that the Red Leafs, due to federal government regulations, would be unable to play another home game until its Dec. 2 Shrum Bowl date against its crosstown rivals, the UBC Thunderbirds.
Official word of the lifting of the Canada-USA border restriction requiring all visitors entering Canada to be fully vaccinated, however, has returned two more home games to the locals, beginning with a 6 p.m. kick-off Saturday as Simon Fraser (0-5, 0-5) plays host to the Western New Mexico Mustangs (3-4, 2-3).
So now, after four straight weekends on the road, including back-to-back trips to Texas and New Mexico, Rigell and his Red Leafs will attempt to get off the schneid and register that elusive first win.
A quick scan of the voluminous ranks of NCAA Div. 2 football reveals that the Red Leafs are one of 11 winless teams within the tier’s 155-school membership.
“It’s a fantastic feeling right now because our guys are really excited about our home crowd getting to see them play and do what they do best,” the unflappable Rigell said Wednesday before practice, adding his team was ready “change its tendencies” in the quest for victory.
“It’s going to be good to have familiar faces cheering you on instead of always being road warriors, being in a hostile environment. As a program, we really need it.”
The past two Saturdays have been emotional ones for the Red Leafs.
On Oct. 8, SFU dropped a heartbreaking 31-24 overtime decision in Odessa, TX to host Texas Permian Basin, and the head coach doesn’t dodge the fact that, while gutted by the final score, his players didn’t bring the same level of focus to last Saturday’s disappointing 42-14 loss at Eastern New Mexico.
Still, it’s all been a far cry from Simon Fraser’s 77-0 loss in late September at Wichita Falls, TX to Midwestern State.
“We know it’s always a little different at home, and that anything can happen with these games at home,” continued Rigell, “and we’re going to cherish and enjoy the experience and play with passion and heart… fly around and see where the cards fall. This gives us the ability to showcase to our fans the improvement that we are making and the strides that we’re making… even though it isn’t in the win-loss column. People can tell the difference, the small strides, the small points that you can see. And you take the small victories and add them up to a big victory.”
If all of that were to transpire Saturday, it would indeed be a big victory.
Here’s some notes and facts heading into Saturday’s contest:
HEARTFELT FROM BESELT
SFU’s 5-foot-9 senior receiver Ethan Beselt has been a shining light in a season which has had more than its share of darkness.
Heading into Saturday, the sure-handed former Kelowna-Mt. Boucherie Bears product has, over four games this season, hauled in 19 receptions for 365 yards and four touchdowns, including seven catches for 51 yards and two major scores this past Saturday against the ENMU.
With Robert Meadors and Sam Davenport joining Beselt to form an especially effective Red Leafs’ troika of late, Simon Fraser’s passing game has given the team an important rally point.
And Beselt, with his ability to not only make spectacular grabs but also gain separation after the catch, sits in rarified company within the Div. 2 national ranks.
Beselt’s 91.2 yards-per-game total not only leads the entire Lone Star Conference, it’s also lofty enough to have him sitting 22nd nationally.
Despite a running game which has fought hard to offer the offence more balance, the Red Leafs have struggled to find their feet on the ground.
All of that has put an added impetus on the passing game, and 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior pivot Justin Seiber has not shied away from the challenge.
Heading into Saturday, Seiber sits within the top 50 of the national NCAA Div. 2 passing-yards-per-game charts at No. 48.
Feeling the bumps and bruises that come with the position, the Kentwood (Wash.) High product is averaging 201.8 yards per game through the air, and in five games is 80-of-141 for 1,009 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
When asked about his starting quarterback Wednesday, Rigell counted Seiber as a foundational piece of what he hopes helps carry the Red Leafs forward in their evolution towards becoming a week-in, week-out competitor in the Texas-based Lone Star Conference.
“Seiber is a competitor… he doesn’t say much, you don’t know he is in the room half the time because he is as quiet as a mouse, but he has always been a competitor and he embraces the game plan,” began Rigell. “We get his thoughts, we add his thoughts into the game plan. We want to do the things he feels he does really well, and it’s important to let your quarterback have some say in what your plan is and what they are comfortable with.”
Having taken his share of sacks as part of a winless campaign played almost exclusively on the road, Seiber, like so many Red Leafs, is feeling the long miles of the season.
“But just because he might be a little banged up, he is going to play,” continued Rigell. “We have to be creative. And if he goes down, then (back-up) Brandon Niksich has to be ready.”
Looking beyond this season, as Simon Fraser continues to do its best to get up to speed from a physicality standpoint against its U.S. competition, Rigell was proud to say that the message sent through example over their time in the program from players like Seiber, will never fall on deaf ears.
“After all the challenges we have had, he has never bitched, cried or moaned about the situation. With him, he’s been a great mentor to the younger guys. The substance and the follow through is always there. He and the Ethan Beselts are the kind of players who are helping create the culture that will be a part of the foundation for years to come.”
Look for the pigskin to be airborne much of Saturday.
“They are a spread team similar to Permian Basin, they want to throw it all over the park,” Rigell said of what his Simon Fraser defence will be facing from the Mustangs as they attempt to slow Seiber’s counterpart at the pivot in sophomore quarterback Devin Larsen, who enters play ranked 31st nationally, averaging 232 yards per game through the air.
But don’t expect SFU to maintain any kind of a status quo in terms of its game plan.
They are 0-5 at the precise midway mark of the season, and the opportunity to return home and grab that first win could come via a change of face.
“We’re going to kind of gamble a little bit to make it exciting for our fans,” said Rigell. “We’ve got to push the envelope, push the tempo.”
The cozy confines of SFU Stadium need to be a big factor for the home team Saturday because the Red Leafs need to find the inspiration to play a complete four quarters of football if they are to have a chance at a win.
SFU and Western New Mexico have played three common opponents thus far and the Mustangs have the better performances.
Central Washington: Beat SFU 40-7 (-33), beat WNMU 24-13 (-11).
Midwestern State: Beat SFU 77-0 (-77), lost to WNMU 30-27 (+3).
Texas A&M Kingsville: Beat SFU 35-7 (-28), beat WNMU 21-17 (-4).
Last week, the Mustangs lost 52-13 to the undefeated Angelo State Rams, the same team that SFU will face a week Saturday in Blaine, Wash.
The win has the Rams, ranked No. 2 nationally in the latest d2football.com Top 25 poll, sitting at 7-0 on the season. Texas A&M Kingsville is the only other Lone Star Conference team sitting in the top 25 nationally. They are ranked at No. 18 this week.
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