Queen’s thumped in season opener by defending champs

Defensive lineman Ida Ramsey makes a tackle in the trenches for the Gaels Saturday.
Defensive lineman Ida Ramsey makes a tackle in the trenches for the Gaels Saturday.

An ancient proverb states that a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step. On Saturday afternoon, pitted against a fifth-ranked Ottawa Gee-Gees club freed from the shackles of CIAU probation, the young and rebuilding Queen’s Golden Gaels looked to be at least that far from recapturing their grandeur of yesteryear, managing but a single point in a 35-1 shellacking.

The lopsided result can be excused somewhat. After falling short of the Dunsmore Cup each of the past two seasons while unable to host a playoff contest, the Gee-Gees, a coterie of talented athletes led by the Hec Creighton Trophy-winning quarterback Phil Coté, are primed to play deep into November, while the Gaels’ aspirations involve merely returning to the postseason before the changes implemented by new head coach Pat Sheahan truly begin to bear fruit in 2001 or ’02.

Ottawa 35
Queen’s 1

“Ottawa set a fairly high standard for the team to measure up to,” said Sheahan, whose club was outgained 468 yards to 196 and committed five turnovers. “It was the first time I’ve gone to war with these guys, for me it’s a learning experience as well. I think you’ll find that as the season will unfold, Coté will be really ready to perform. Ottawa is very good in their offensive personnel — they’re on all eight cylinders and the rest of us are trying to find ourselves.” The outcome was decided before the constables could complete frisking the students who deigned to attend, as the Gee-Gees led 17-0 before Queen’s even made a first down. Facing an Ottawa defense possessing more speed than Hunter S. Thompson on assignment in Las Vegas, Gaels rookie quarterback Craig Spear exhibited only occasional glimpses of the talent that prompted Sheahan to start him ahead of veteran Darren Cassidy in the Gaels’ two-pivot system. “We’re not quite ready to sustain ten-play drives,” Sheahan stated, noting that the offensive unit is still learning a new playbook assembled with more haste than is desirable. “We’d decided to dress the two players who were the most ready. Spear is a very good athlete... he just needs more field time. There is a phenomena with young quarterbacks — the game slows down the more you’re out there.”

Despite good field position on Queen’s first three offensive series, Spear (8 of 16 passing, 61 yards) was unable to move the Gaels early, and soon the Gee-Gees’ vaunted offense came alive in typical fashion. First, Coté, who had 266 yards and three touchdowns through the air and another major by land, directed an eight-play, 95-yard drive, culminating in a 13-yard scoring lob to slotback Darryl Ray (seven catches, 110 yards) with 4:25 left in the first stanza. Two minutes later, Spear bobbled the snap on a third-and-inches gamble in Queen’s territory. Taking over at the Gaels’ 44, Coté found fleet-footed wideout Mike DiBattista open down the left sideline — after Gaels All-Canadian cornerback Jason Wimmer bit on an out-and-up route — and hit him in stride for the first of his two long scoring grabs.

In the second period, Spear briefly sparked the offense with a perfect option pitch to spring tailback Wyatt Hartley for a 48-yard gain to the Ottawa 18, but two plays later, on first and goal, the young pivot fumbled the snap, with the Gee-Gees recovering. On the Gaels’ next series, Spear completed a series of short tosses, including two to All-Canadian slotback James MacLean (eight catches, 62 yards), before the drive sputtered, and the Tricolour settled for a 47-yard single from rookie punter Will Vreugdenhil. With 2:17 remaining before intermission, Wimmer had a chance to bat down or even intercept a Coté bomb to DiBattista, but the Gee-Gees receiver won the fight for the football and sauntered into the end zone for a 57-yard major, sending the teams to the clubhouse with Ottawa comfortably ahead 25-1. Following a scoreless third quarter, with Cassidy (7 of 14, 65 yards) replacing Spear under centre for the Tricolour, Coté added his obligatory one-yard touchdown wriggle with 13:21 remaining. A field goal by rookie kicker Jeffery Lee-Yaw completed the scoring.

“These guys understand that they weren’t quite ready for Ottawa. They get back at them on Thanksgiving and if they beat us 35-1 again, we’ll know we haven’t improved,” said Sheahan. With one game behind them, the Gaels travel to Montreal this weekend for the Kill McGill contest, which will be the last renewal of Canada’s oldest sports rivalry before Queen’s, along with Ottawa, moves to the OUA next season. “The matchup is reasonable. Our guys can win if they perform... if they don’t, they’ll beat us. McGill’s nothing to fear but I certainly respect them. They hang in there, and don’t beat themselves.” With the host Redmen fresh from shading cross-town rival Concordia 20-15 on Saturday, the Gaels’ journey will continue to traverse along a steep incline.

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