Five local football players are now Vanier Cup champions as members of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds.
The five were in the lineup Saturday in Quebec City for the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports) championship game, where the T-Birds toppled the favoured Montreal Carabins 26-23 on a 20-yard field goal by Quinn van Gylswyk on the final play.
Fourth-year offensive lineman Ethan Sadowski, third-year offensive lineman Tony Ganton of North Delta, second-year receiver Will Watson of South Surrey, and first-year players Malcolm Lee at receiver and Vikaram Varpaul on offensive line were all wearing the Thunderbird’s blue and gold Saturday.
Sadowski, Watson and Ganton were starters in the game, contributing to the first Vanier Cup championship by UBC since 1997.
Sadowski, a defensive lineman for his first three seasons at UBC, missed the first half of the season due to injury, then returned to play on offense at the midway point. With Sadowski in the lineup, the T-Birds won their final four regular season games and all four playoff games.
Watson, who had a team high 57 receptions and 763 yards in his second season as a receiver, was also the main target Saturday. He tied a Vanier Cup record for most receptions in a game with 12 and finished with game-high 171 receiving yards, the longest for 36 yards.
“I exceeded expectations this season,” said the former White Rock Titan. “I played a pretty critical role on the offense, and I was happy with that. It was like I was back in minor football.”
The T-Birds were 2-2 in the Canada West conference midway through the season, but then reeled off four straight victories to place second. They then defeated the University of Manitoba Bisons 52-10 in a semifinal game, clinched the Canada West championship with a 34-26 victory over previously unbeaten Calgary, then handled the St. Francis Xavier X-Men 36-9 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia to qualify for the Vanier Cup.
In the championship game, the Thunderbirds dominated the first half of play, and were up 16-0 late in the second quarter. The Carabins took advantage of a pair of UBC turnovers to score 10 points in the final three minutes of the first half to get back in the game, and pulled even at 23-23 with eight minutes remaining.
UBC attempted a field goal with 90 seconds remaining, but a bad snap turned the ball over. A.J. Blackwell then intercepted a Montreal pass at the Carabins 51-yard line 10 seconds later, giving the ball back to the T-Birds. Quarterback Michael O’Connor completed passes of 12 and eight yards to Watson, putting the ball in field goal range. Three plays later, van Gylswyk ended the game with a 20-yard field goal.
Prior to the game, Sadowski spoke of the importance of taking advantage of an opportunity to win a championship.
“We won the B.C.’s (provincial championship) when I was a Grade 9 (at Seaquam Secondary) in Senior AA,” he said. “We were always projected to go far in the playoffs, and we did go far, but we never won another championship.
“Not a lot of guys get this chance. And for some guys, this could be their last game.”
– The CIS announced its award winners Thursday night at a banquet in Quebec City.
Jamel Lyles of the University of Manitoba Bisons was selected a Second-team All-Canadian as a kick returner. The Surrey native was also one of four finalists for the Peter Gorman Trophy as Rookie of the Year, an honour which went to Mathieu Betts of the Laval Rouge et Or.
Lyles, a graduate of Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary, was a Canada West All-star at both running back and kick returner. He led the conference with 1,564 all-purpose yards in eight games played.
He ranked third in rushing with 691 yards, third in kickoff return yards with 407 and was second in punt return yardage with 344. He also caught 14 passes for 130 yards.
Lyles scored seven touchdowns, five by rushing, one on a kickoff return and one on a punt return.
“Jamel has had an outstanding season in his first year at Manitoba,” said Bisons head coach Brian Dobie. “I knew he was going to have an impact in his rookie season, but he far exceeded expectations and was a constant force on both offence and special teams.”