The 2021 Canada West football season revealed a level of promise within the ranks of the UBC Thunderbirds that is darn near impossible to ignore.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of a season-ending 39-17 loss Saturday afternoon in the Canada West’s Hardy Cup semifinals to the host Saskatchewan Huskies, ‘Birds head coach Blake Nill wasn’t about to disrespect the actual process his young team must still face if all of that good stuff is actually going to transpire as part of a maturity process between now and the kick-off to its 2022 season opener.
“What it all comes down to is this has to hurt them, because nothing in football is ever guaranteed, and this is an opportunity lost,” Nill began, after his team had held the game’s margins to within a single score until the flood gates burst with just over seven minutes remaining on the clock.
“My hope is that they stew for a while,” he continued of his players, “and then they start to realize that they don’t want to feel this way again, and that they grow and they mature from that.”
UBC had made its share of mistakes over the first three quarters, yet they had not given up the huge chunk plays which were part-and-parcel of its earlier 43-15 home loss to the Huskies.
Then, on the same early fourth-quarter drive in which the team had lost its star rookie running back Isaiah Knight to what appeared to be a right ankle injury, third-string rookie running back Lucas Mastrodomenico came in, spun off the defence and found his way into the end zone for a six-yard score which eventually pulled the ‘Birds to within 22-17 with 12:29 remaining.
At that point, it was OK to wonder if an unranked UBC team, installed as a huge road underdog against the nation’s No. 4-ranked team, had indeed found a way to confound the odds by playing the perfect road playoff game, ultimately positioning itself as it had done, to wrest away just enough momentum that a trip to next week’s Hardy Cup championship game was suddenly not out of the question.
Yet the response from Saskatchewan on its next drive told an undeniable truth about what happens to a team on its way to becoming veteran-laden, a team which very likely stewed through the pains of big losses and, in turn, has grown from it.
Nine plays, 69 yards, all engineered by quarterback Mason Nyhus, highlighted by a 37-yard reception by Sam Baker and capped by an eventual 23-yard touchdown reception by running back Adam Machart.
It made the score 29-17 and was the start of the Huskies’ game-ending seven-minute, 17-0 run.
And that trio of Saskatchewan names we just referenced?
They are three of seven Huskies players named this week as Canada West regular-season offensive all-stars. For the record, UBC — which on Saturday started five freshmen on defence — did not have a single player selected among the conference’s all-stars on that side of the ball.
“That’s a veteran team, and they do what veteran teams do, and that is respond,” said Nill. “If we had made that a two-and-out at that point, it might have changed the outcome of the game. But what you saw happen was the Saskatchewan offence say ‘Look, we have to take control of this’ and a veteran crew… they just were able to make the plays they had to.”
Of course, the whole point here, and no one needs to nudge Nill in that direction to agree, is that he and his staff have put together a team bursting with promise.
Conservatively speaking, UBC had at least 20 freshmen either starting or within the main rotation when you combined the offence and the defence, including the skill positions, the offensive line and throughout the defensive secondary.
And the best part of all was the level to which they improved over just eight weeks.
And so the final Saturday of their 2021 season was one which all concerned will carry into the offseason as a truthful gauge of where they sit within the hierarchy of potential Vanier Cup contenders.
Key fifth-year players like receiver Trey Kellogg, linebacker Caleb Abraham and free safety James Ens won’t be back, and Nill says there are “no guarantees” which fourth-year players will return as those in question measure the demands of their studies, and potential pro opportunities which may arise against the extended eligibility window the COVID-cancelled campaign brought.
Nonetheless, the base of game-ready talent is as deep as its been in a while, and the skill and potential of such rising second-years as quarterback Garrett Rooker, running backs Knight and Dane Kapler, receivers Jason Soriano and Robert Lutman, offensive lineman Matt Kingsley, linebackers Ryan Baker and Stephane Tshishimbi, tackle Kaishaun Carter, and the likes of corner Keijaun Johnson and halfback Dustin Magee in the secondary, represents an absolute bounty of talent.
And that’s to say nothing of a smaller but equally impactful rising third-year class.
And as Nill has eluded to over the course of the campaign, there are a lot of talented players who didn’t even get a chance to see the field this season.
Mastrodomenico, who not only rushed for a score, but carried a total of just four times for 42 yards, showed power between the tackles.
The Huskies have dominated along with ground with its trio of Machart, Josh Ewanchyna and Ryker Frank.
Next year UBC could open the door on a running back room of Knight, Kapler, Mastrodomenico and 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman Skylar Griffith, a Winnipeg product who did not see action this season but whom Nill has touted.
“They key to our offseason is to evaluate our athletes, determine where our greatest needs are, and go out and recruit those pieces and develop those people,” said Nill. “We have a lot of guys that are more than capable of becoming impact players that weren’t on the field today.”
To say the sky is the limit for the Texas-schooled pivot, may be cutting his potential short.
“I truly believe that Garrett Rooker will be one of the best ever,” said Nill, his open-ended lack of specificity both acknowledged and appreciated.
And maybe that’s the best place in which to put a bow on a UBC Thunderbirds season which, while ending some three wins shy of a berth in the national championship game, nonetheless travelled a path as insightful as any in recent team history.
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