Slotback adds firepower to roster

MacLean returns to Queen’s for a fifth year of football

James MacLean in action last season against the Ottawa Gee-Gees.
James MacLean in action last season against the Ottawa Gee-Gees.
Photo courtesy of James Maclean

When Gaels' football head coach Pat Sheahan returns from holidays in mid-August, the first thing he should do is send a thank-you card to Hamilton Tiger-Cats Head Coach Ron Lancaster.

In addition to the Gaels' dismal 1-7 season last year, Sheahan assumed he would lose one of the best receivers in Queen's history to the Ti-Cats.

His star receiver, left slotback James MacLean, also assumed that his days at Queen's were numbered. Having finished his fourth year at Queen's, MacLean had already been to a pro camp in Hamilton last year, and the Ottawa native was more confident going in for his second try.

"I'd already been to camp, and so physically I knew what to expect," said MacLean.

Although satisfied with his performance at the Ti-Cat camp in St.Catharines, MacLean's bid for a spot on the team came up short.

"Basically I think that they felt pretty comfortable with what they already had, and weren't really looking for another receiver," said MacLean. "I was disappointed with the number of [chances] that I got, because I felt I didn't truly get an opportunity to show them what I can do."

Hamilton changed their offensive set and needed fewer receivers. Going with two running backs in the backfield, instead of only Ronald Williams, the Tiger-Cats no longer wanted five receivers on the field.

"There was definitely less room for receivers at camp this year. Once I realized that I kind of saw the writing on the wall, so I was disappointed, but not shocked at the way things turned out,"MacLean said.

MacLean dressed and played in the team's first exhibition game, a 29-16 win over the Toronto Argonauts. The two-time recipient of the Johnny Evans Trophy for Queen's Most Valuable Player was able to pull off one catch, a 24-yard reception in the first half.

Later in the game, a trivial play may have been the deciding factor in his release. MacLean found himself open in the end zone, but he and quarterback Kelvin Robinson got their signals crossed. As MacLean came back for the ball, it went sailing over his head deep into the endzone. A touchdown catch in his first game would have turned a few heads. Instead, MacLean found himself at home later that week pondering his future.

Despite being disappointed about being cut, MacLean did not sit and dwell on the past. Instead, he weighed his options and decided coming back to play at Queen's for a fifth and final season was something he wanted to do.

"Coming back was always a possibility," said the two-time all-Canadian.

"I went home and considered my options and once I came to visit friends in Kingston I knew it was where I wanted to be. The program has turned a corner, and when I saw the hard work everyone was putting in, I wanted to be a part of it."

MacLean hopes he and his teammates can experience some of the success that surrounded the program in the previous decade.

"We haven't been to the playoffs since '97," said MacLean "so the important thing for me this year is winning.

"I'd trade personal statistics for the playoffs in a heartbeat."

MacLean believes this year's Golden Gaels are capable of going at least 500 in the regular season.

"We're definitely going to be better than last year and 4-4 is a good improvement from 1-7."

MacLean's predictions for improvement seem plausible. Coach Sheahan is heading into his second year and the team will be familiar with his system. The Gaels have also moved from the high-calibre O-QIFC conference into the less talented OUA. Queen's will no longer play McGill, Laval, Bishop's, nor will they face last year’s Vanier Cup Champions, Ottawa, twice. Instead the Gaels will square off against weaker teams such as Guelph, York, Toronto, and Laurier.

In addition to a lighter schedule and an established coaching style, the Gaels have shed some of last year's inexperience. A team that once had nine rookies on the punt return team, and a starting quarterback that didn't even dress the year before, is now prepared.

With this season looking like his last, MacLean is ready to contribute towards what could be a very good year. And while his dreams of a pro career may have been put on the shelf for now, number 21 has no regrets.

"I've been lucky to have two pro tryouts," he said, "but there comes a time when you have to stop being a kid.

"I'm going to write my LSATs in the fall, so who knows what can happen."

The Queen's football program is echoing that statement. With James MacLean back catching passes, there's no telling what September will bring.

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