Dominance through the decades

Recruiting key for powerhouse programs — and for those nipping at their heels

In OUA men’s squash, finishing second can feel like winning.

That’s because Queen’s and most of their opponents haven’t sniffed the actual top prize in decades. The Western Mustangs have won 32 straight provincial championships — an astonishing streak they prolonged another year last month in Waterloo.

No single variable — be it luck, injury or an opponent’s sheer ability — has disrupted Western’s dominance even once in that span. It’s a disheartening reality for challengers across the league.

“Getting a silver medal is quite an achievement, because you’re beating all the other teams,” said Gaels head coach Eugene Zaremba, who has led Queen’s to several runner-up placements since he began coaching in 1994.

“But there’s one team that’s way ahead of everybody else. They’re unassailable.”

Across Canadian university sports, a smattering of programs have established themselves as dynasties: clubs whose supremacy extends beyond a single generation of star players and whose invincibility has become ingrained in the very way they operate.

The Carleton Ravens have lorded over CIS men’s basketball in 11 of the last 13 years, while the Windsor Lancers have won five straight national titles on the women’s side. The Guelph Gryphons, meanwhile, have claimed every CIS cross-country banner since 2006.

Squash isn’t a CIS sport, but Western’s men are Canada’s poster boys for sustained success.

They’ve been led for the bulk of their decades-long run by legendary coach Jack Fairs, who took over in the early 1960s and gradually groomed the Mustangs into a powerhouse.

According to Zaremba, Western’s feats can be heavily attributed to Fairs’ handiwork — namely, a unique arrangement that sees the Mustangs compete in the United States.

Western is the lone Canadian member of the College Squash Association (CSA), a conference made up of several top American programs. Fairs’ charges split time between ruling the OUA and facing teams like Connecticut’s Trinity College — winners of 15 of the last 17 CSA first-division championships.

This setup, Zaremba said, helps Western recruit Canada’s best eligible talent, year after year after year.

“There are probably half a dozen very good players that don’t go to the States. Since they have the opportunity of still playing against the [CSA] teams at Western, they would tend to go to Western,” he said.

“It’s like if you had one university in football who attracted all the stars from all the high schools. That’s the kind of pool you’re looking at. If you had that situation in any other sport, you’d dominate.”

Western’s recruiting edge is a formula Dave Scott-Thomas knows well.

Since he arrived at Guelph in 1997, the Gryphons’ cross-country coach has led the way to 24 national titles, including an ongoing run of nine men’s and 10 women’s championships.

CIS athletes can only compete for up to five seasons, so Scott-Thomas has had to constantly replenish his roster with championship-calibre recruits. For a decade, those transitions have worked out seamlessly.

“Despite where we’re at now, people aren’t just knocking on the door, walking in and sitting down and saying, ‘I’m coming to Guelph and I’m really fast’. It doesn’t work that way,” he said.

“At the core of it, it’s just about finding people that are motivated the same way and can share the same vision.”

Scott-Thomas came to Guelph from an assistant coaching role with the Victoria Vikes, where he also oversaw an affiliated high school program. Three of his top male prospects chose to accompany him east, he said, starting their collegiate careers at a program with just one previous national title.

That group first won CIS gold in 1999. Today, Scott-Thomas has enough championship rings to fill his hands twice over — but he hasn’t lost the desire to push for more.

“I don’t look at it as ‘there’s a legacy effect: we’ve won, so that means we can win next year and it’s easy’,” he said. “I feel as fresh and excited about next fall and as raw and hungry to go as I ever have. That team will be different. What we’ve done in the past and the success we’ve had doesn’t entitle us to anything at all in 2015.”

Queen’s cross-country head coach Steve Boyd describes his counterpart as a master recruiter, with the ability to entice and nurture top junior prospects throughout their university careers.

Recruiting, Boyd said, came somewhat easier to Scott-Thomas late last decade. Guelph hosted the national cross-country club championships from 2007-10, meaning top high school runners flocked to the campus and competed on the Gryphons’ home course.

“One year, I think they got six or eight of the top 10 girls from [Ontario high school] cross, which is enough to close the door on anybody for a decade to come,” Boyd said.

“The momentum out of that is ridiculous. If you turn four of those girls into top performers, they’re going to win for you for four years, and on the basis of that, you get additional recruits in subsequent years. That’s where we are now.”

Guelph’s hosting run ended in 2010, and Boyd said OUA recruiting patterns have evened out. Gryphons runners Ross Proudfoot and Carise Thompson, meanwhile, won the individual men’s and women’s CIS gold medals in 2014 — but both have exhausted their eligibility.

“We’re about to return to a situation where somebody could possibly beat them in the next two years, but it will never be easy,” Boyd said. “They have a winning tradition now and they’re going to fight back like tigers.”

If the Gaels are the team to finally topple the streak, it may happen by harnessing some of Guelph’s old advantages. Starting next fall, Queen’s will host the next four national club championships.

“If we could get one male and one female athlete out of each of those four years, that’s all it would take to knock them off,” Boyd said.

“Every dynasty falls, eventually. Theirs will fall, too, and it will most likely happen in the next four years.”

Knocking them down a peg

Dave Scott-Thomas remembers the day Guelph’s reign was nearly derailed.

The Gryphons’ cross-country dynasty — with Scott-Thomas at the helm — was still fledgling back in 2002, when the Windsor Lancers came within inches of denying them a fourth consecutive CIS men’s championship.

In national title races, each team’s five fastest runners contribute to an overall point total, covering 50 km of ground between them. Every step counted that day in London.

“Not only did we tie on points, but the spread of the total time of all the athletes running was less than one second,” Scott-Thomas said. “To add to the drama of that day, the finish line technology went down, so we had to wait about an hour and a half before we knew the outcome of the race. Bloody close, man.

“It’s funny — I get a lot of commentary like, ‘It’s got to be more meaningful when it’s a nice, tight race, and it’s really close’,” he continued. “It’s memorable, but I’m OK if we’re dominant.”

Not everybody feels that way.

Victories have been hard to come by in Steve Boyd’s four seasons at Queen’s, so the Gaels cross-country coach can be excused for savouring the time his runners one-upped Guelph.

Queen’s didn’t win the CIS women’s championship in 2013 — that title was the Gryphons’ ninth in a row — but second-year Gael Julie-Anne Staehli pulled off an improbable blowout, outpacing Guelph’s Carise Thompson by 17 seconds for an individual gold medal.

Fellow Gael Victoria Coates clocked in three-tenths of a second behind Thompson to earn bronze.

“We knew we couldn’t take them on the team side, but you take wins against Guelph wherever you can get them. They hate to lose anything. It’s partly why they’re so good,” Boyd said.

“They’re not going to go down without a massive fight, which is going to make it all the more satisfying when they do. They’re a great team to watch, and it’s fun to beat them whenever you can.”

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