BURNABY — Have you only sipped the current flavour of Kool-Aid that is part-and-parcel of the new gridiron regime atop Burnaby Mountain?
Or have you gleaned enough of the unmistakably positive mojo that has swathed the Clan program since the January hiring of new head coach Thomas Ford, that you’ve walked up to the figurative punch bowl and decided to take a gigantic swig of Simon Fraser football, vintage 2018?
No one on any corner of the campus, including the indefatigable Ford, is asking its long-suffering fan base for instant buy-in based simply on blind faith and the team’s spiffy new, classically-styled helmets.
Yet with the countdown to the team’s Sept. 1 (3 p.m.) season opener at Terry Fox Field against Oregon’s visiting Willamette Bearcats now sitting just over a week away, Ford has clearly secured the faith of his players to try to snap a losing streak which now sits at 33 games and counting.
Head up the hill to spend a day with a program sporting its fourth head coach in six seasons, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sprawling nature of the plotlines, each of which — from morale, to skill, to depth — seem like a world unto themselves.
Yet to tell the story of where Simon Fraser football really is these days, you need to temper both gloom and optimism.
You need to find the new voice, but also listen to the ones who have seen and heard it all.
Together, you discover the common ground. And it’s from there that a proud but ego-bruised fan base can set about deciding whether they are ready to make yet another emotional investment in the future.
A REY OF HOPE
Who best to represent the story of Clan football in the NCAA era from a player’s perspective?
Why not a sixth-year, soon-to-be 24-year-old defensive lineman?
Why not a guy who was first recruited by crosstown arch-rival UBC, only to not make the grade, then resurface a year later atop Burnaby Mountain, on the recommendation of a family member, as an anonymous walk-on hopeful?
Why not a guy who is the only remaining member of the Clan’s incoming Class of 2013?
And finally, why not a guy who will soon hold the distinction of being the only person to play for all four of Simon Fraser’s NCAA-era head coaches, from Dave Johnson to Jacques Chapdelaine to Kelly Bates and now Ford?
“It’s been a long career,” says Rey Arcega, a 2012 graduate of Calgary’s Central Memorial High, and the most grizzled veteran of the Clan struggle no matter how you slice it. “I don’t even remember the feeling of winning.”
We can’t pretend that pre-season optimism is any kind of unique commodity, especially around these parts.
Yet if you’ve gone through the amount of losing streaks and coaching changes that Arcega, and a number of his longtime teammates along the defensive line have, like Kyle Wilson and Brad Lyons, the tint of your glasses tends to get decidedly less rosy.
“Rey was one of the first guys I met with in the off-season,” begins Ford, 36, of his first round of January meet-and-greets, “and when we started talking, I could tell that Rey was feeling me out. I thought to myself, ‘He’s heard this song-and-dance before.’ I mean, he’s heard it from three other guys.
“But the one thing I can say from that meeting to our exit meeting (after spring camp) is he told me ‘I appreciate that you are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk,’” said Ford. “That’s important for our program, and for me, great to hear, from a guy that has been here a long time.”
One of the hazards of reporting on any new coaching regime, is that any pronounced positives can be taken as negatives about those who are no longer around.
Yet within all of that, it’s important to remember that so much of the dialogue’s tone has been shaped by a collective lack of success for the past few coaching staffs.
The Clan began to experience success towards the latter stages of Johnson’s Clan career, but they have not had it since. And thus with change and instability becoming the norm, Ford felt it was essential that he put in his own kind of foundational structure, one which he wanted the players to know represented the stability he was determined to bring.
It was, in fact, the thing Arcega appreciated the most.
“At first, I had a lot of skepticism, but I obviously didn’t know him,” Arcega says, verifying Ford’s initial read. “But I have loved the atmosphere coach Ford has brought to the team. Things are way more regimented and I like to think that I am a regimented thinker.”
REMEMBERING THE TASTE OF VICTORY
From the day of his hiring in January, Ford has gone full speed ahead, not only hitting the ground on a recruiting spree which has brought what he hopes is the future of the program to top of Burnaby Mountain, but also moving his family from across the border from Washington to new digs near the main campus.
Through it all, he can’t hide the fact that he was heartened by what he saw happening back at his new home base.
“You know, those guys have really been the lynchpin of the buy in,” he said of his veteran core of players. “We had probably 35-to-40 guys, including a lot of out-of-town guys, stick around this summer. And that was really our nucleus of returning players. So those guys that have bought in to the philosophy.”
Sadly, the team’s best overall talent, rising junior receiver/return man Gavin Cobb, was lost just three days into camp with a torn hamstring that will likely keep him out the entire season.
“He is handling it well and he is coaching up our younger players,” Ford said for the former Mt. Douglas Rams standout. “He was a leader of the group and it was a major blow but I can tell you that his attitude and effort, and the fact he is staying the course, has helped the mentality of the entire team.”
Eastern Washington transfer Miles Richardson enter his senior year perched atop the depth chart at quarterback, where ballyhooed pure freshman Justin Seiber of Kentwood High in Kent, Wash., appears to be the future.
Reuben Buchanan, a local product out of Notre Dame has tranferred back to B.C. from McMaster and looks to have the edge at centre along a revamped offensive line. Tyler Wood, a transfer from Fresno City College, as well a returnees Stephane Tanguay and Scott Maki are among the leaders at the guard spots, while youthful tackles Brayden Gatland, the GNAC Freshman of the Year, and second-year Devin Pott, both local products, serve as the bookends.
Rysen John, the 6-foot-7 junior out of Vancouver College will anchor the pass-catching core, while Ford is especially enthused with the play of incoming freshman receivers Robert Meadors (Vancouver (Wash.)-Heritage) and Devin O’Hea (North Vancouver-Argyle).
A running back committee, tasked with giving the team some semblance of ground presence is highlighted by incoming transfer Jason Nelson, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound junior from Stockton’s San Joaquin Delta College.
On the defensive side of the ball, the tone is being set by the veterans up front, and they have been joined by promising young Washington state linemen like end Tank Brewster from Snoqualmie’s Mount Si and tackle Davion Dixon from Seattle-O’Dea.
Sophomore Brendan Lowry (Okotoks (Alta.)-Foothills Composite) and senior Ben Minaker (Mt. Boucherie) lead the way at the safety spots with O’Dea soph Shea Carstens coming on and expected to be a presence in nickel packages.
Jaryn Bailey (Burnaby Mountain) and Joshua Verdugo (Spruce Grove, Alta) are among the talents expected to lead at the cornerback spots.
Senior Gabe Lopes (Camas, Wash.) and a trio of sophomores in Luca Bellini (St. Thomas More), Jakob Mozill (Saskatoon-Centennial) and Griffin Barrett (Moose Jaw-A.E. Peacock) help populate the linebacking core which also includes freshman Drew Nicholson from Bothell (Wash.).
Yet for Ford, there is something special about the one season he will get to spend with his seniors.
“And Rey Arcega is the embodiment of what we want our program to be,” explained Ford, a former running back who helped lead Linfield (Ore.) to the 2004 NCAA Div. 3 national title.
“He is that guy who works hard and leads by example and if you watch him, all you have to tell the younger guys is ‘See Rey? Just go and be like Rey.’ And they’ve followed suit.”
Arcega can’t believe his senior season is finally upon him.
And remember what he said about not remembering what it feels like to win? He actually had a little more to add.
“It’s such a distant memory, for lack of a better term,” he concluded, “but I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like this year. I know we’re going to feel it again.”
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