Nate Kerstens’ mind immediately turned to Bishop’s.
The fifth-year men’s lacrosse captain didn’t hesitate when asked to name the most memorable game of this season, his team’s best in recent memory.
He’d tasted victory against the perennially strong Gaiters once before — and nothing was sweeter than finally doing it again, in an 8-7 win on Sept. 15.
“We haven’t beat Bishop’s since I was in first year,” Kerstens said. “I’m the only remaining guy on the team that had beaten Bishop’s before. We used to get killed by them.”
Two years removed from rock bottom — a 0-10 season in the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA) — Gaels lacrosse has gone from doormat to dangerous, catapulting from the cellar to championship contention.
The September win over Bishop’s was an early bonus in a 7-3 campaign, Queen’s best-ever finish. Tomorrow, the Gaels will host the Trent Excalibur (4-6) in a wild-card playoff matchup.
If they win, they’ll advance to the CUFLA championship tournament for the first time.
“It’s definitely a big turnaround,” Kerstens said. “In the past, we’ve relied on individuals, moreso. Now, it’s a little more spread out — a lot of good players.”
This sudden influx of depth forced the Gaels to make pre-season cuts in 2013 — another first in team history, according to Kerstens. Without formally recruiting high school athletes, they’ve surged up the standings on the backs of increasingly talented walk-ons.
A third of Queen’s 35-man roster is made up of rookies, while second-year attackers Brendan Zoehner and Alex Wright led the squad in scoring.
“Each year we keep getting better and better rookie classes in,” Kerstens said.
Queen’s growth has coincided with lacrosse’s overall expansion in Canadian universities. CUFLA has featured 13 teams in Ontario and Quebec since 2012, with the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Nipissing Lakers set to join in the coming seasons.
The league has recently featured remarkable parity, with a different team claiming the championship in each of the last five seasons.
“The skill level’s increased significantly, even over the five years I’ve been here,” Kerstens said. “It just keeps growing and growing. We’re getting more and more teams and more and more players.”
Queen’s quest for the Baggataway Cup — CUFLA’s championship trophy — is relatively distinct among Gaels teams. Unlike women’s lacrosse and most other varsity sides, they aren’t vying for an OUA title.
Instead, CUFLA operates as an independent circuit. It’s the preeminent lacrosse league for Canadian universities, tasked with persuading homegrown players to stay home.
“A lot of Canadians go to the States, but hopefully if we improve it here, we can get some guys to stay,” Kerstens said.
One current Gael who benefited from his Canadian stay was midfielder Nick Weiss, picked 17th overall in last month’s National Lacrosse League draft by the Vancouver Stealth.
A graduate of the Junior A Peterborough Lakers, Weiss scored twice in Queen’s first faceoff with Trent this season, a 13-10 road victory on Oct. 5.
The Gaels prevailed 16-11 in their second matchup last Saturday, buoyed by an unusually keen student audience.
“We had a really big crowd last weekend for Homecoming against Trent, because we were on Tindall [Field] and people were walking by,” Kerstens said.
Tomorrow’s playoff tilt is slated to take place at West Campus, with the possibility of an eastward trek coming next. The undefeated McGill Redmen will host the Baggataway Cup tournament next weekend in Montreal.
Before history can be made, though, there’s one more game to play.
“We’ve had a couple close games, but I think we can beat [Trent],” Kerstens said.
“Then, onto the final six and Baggataway, and hopefully do some damage there. We’ve got to win first.”
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