By David Song, December 3 2019 —
On Saturday, Nov. 24, the University of Calgary Dinos football team ended a 24-year championship drought at the University of Laval, capturing their first Vanier Cup since 1995. MVP quarterback Adam Sinagra threw two touchdown passes, and a defence that had been clutch all year stepped up once more in a 27–13 triumph over the Montreal Carabins. It was the perfect ending for Sinagra and seven other fifth-year players, including Hunter Karl and Nick Statz — all of whom have now played their final game in a Dinos jersey.
“I still haven’t processed the fact that I’m done here at U of C,” admitted Statz, a defensive back and a sixth-round pick of the Calgary Stampeders in the 2019 CFL draft. “You come back from a trip like that and you’re thrown into school right away, but I’m really happy with the way our season ended. Being a fifth-year guy, it’s obviously special to end on a note like that.”
The Dinos had last been to the Vanier Cup in 2016, where they lost a 31–26 heartbreaker to the perennial powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or. This time, it would not be Laval standing in Calgary’s way, but rather the Carabins, who had vanquished Laval 25–10 in the Dunsmore Cup on Nov. 9. The Dinos had never played Montreal before the 2019 Vanier Cup, and they would be challenged to solve a defence that had held both Laval and Acadia to a combined 10 points in the playoffs.
Receiver Hunter Karl, a seventh-round pick of the Edmonton Eskimos, says that learning from prior experience was the path to victory against the stout Carabins defence.
“They actually played very similar to [the Saskatchewan Huskies] defensively. We were able to use what we knew about [the Huskies] and correlate it to the film that we watched when Montreal played teams like Laval.”
A vital cog in the Dinos attack wheel this year has been newcomer Pat Sheahan, who assumed the role of offensive coordinator after his son Ryan was named head coach of the Guelph Gryphons. Under the elder Sheahan’s leadership, the Dinos have sported a more balanced offence that is less reliant on big plays, but more committed to clock management and running the ball.
“Ryan let us run. He let the horses run. Pat came in and was more of a shepherd,” Karl explained. “The biggest thing we looked at after each game was how many first downs we had, and our time of possession. We knew if we were successful in those two categories as well as the turnover battle, that we’d be successful every game. As long as we hold on to the ball, the big plays will come.”
There certainly were growing pains for the Dinos throughout the year. Ugly regular-season losses to Saskatchewan (15–29) and Manitoba (29–43) exposed weaknesses and areas of adjustment. Yet the Dinos came back with a vengeance, outlasting Manitoba in an epic 47–46 Canada West semi-final that saw them give up a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter. The following week, they smothered Saskatchewan to win the Hardy Cup, 29–4.
“At the beginning of the year, we didn’t have all our pieces together with injuries and stuff, so I think a lot of the experts really underrated us,” remarked Statz. “They didn’t realize the potential we had. When we lost to [Saskatchewan], we ended up beating them in the Hardy Cup. The playoff game against Manitoba taught us to play the full sixty minutes. All those things just taught us how to play together, and I think it really worked out.”
The Dinos have proven to be a resilient bunch. From the 2016 Vanier Cup loss to a brutal 43-18 Hardy Cup defeat to the Huskies last year, Karl and Statz have had to endure their fair share of disappointment along with their teammates. In Karl’s mind, these kinds of losses have played a vital role in growing and strengthening the team, making this year’s Vanier triumph all the more satisfying.
“You have to lose to learn, to a certain extent,” the fifth-year receiver spoke candidly. “Especially for the young guys. When you come into a program that’s been so successful, it’s tough to know how to lose and how to come back from that.”
“A part of losing is that it humbles you,” Statz added. “But it also makes you hungry. In those games that we lost, especially in the Vanier Cup in 2016, we had a really good game, and [Laval] had this crazy blocked punt at the end. This guy went up like, fifteen feet in the air, and you can’t really prepare for those things. You can’t discredit them for winning, but it definitely makes you more hungry to come back later on.”
This year’s Vanier Cup is the fifth in Dinos history, but the first for every athlete on the team as well as for Head Coach Wayne Harris. And as elated as the players are to go out on top, ultimately they view the accomplishment as something far more significant than a feather in their individual caps.
“As nice as it is to be a fifth-year [and have this] be your going out, it’s not about us,” Karl said. “It’s about the program, and everyone that’s involved in the program and in the community as well. I’m just very happy for them and happy that we could be a part of that history.”
“Seeing Coach Harris drink from the Cup and get all excited like that, those are things you’re gonna remember for the rest of your life,” Statz concluded. “To us, it’s those memories that will last forever.”
Both Karl and Statz have been signed by their respective CFL teams and look to continue their football journeys in the professional ranks. They leave behind one of the most competitive programs in Canadian college football, one that will likely challenge for another Vanier Cup in the near future. With Harris and Sheahan returning to lead the ship, the future is bright for the Dinos.