2015 Yates Cup Team Feature
Four years later, it’s a memory that still brings tears to Stu Lang’s eyes and leaves a lump in his throat. It came in the summer of 2015. One of the traditions in Gryphon Football is for each of the captains to establish a set of goals before the season starts and present them to the team in training camp. Coach Lang saw the process as a useful way to align the team from the onset of a campaign.
But at that camp, the routine played out differently.
“Year after year, it would generally be the same thing – we want to do well academically, we want to have a representative in the community,” the former coach and five-time Grey Cup winner says with the emotion evident in his voice.
“I didn’t know what they had decided on and was hearing it for the first time. (Lineman) Matt Nesbitt gets up, surrounded by the captains, and he said, ‘This year, we have one goal – to win the Yates Cup.’
“From that moment on, we were focused.”
The Gryphons played the entire 2015 season with purpose. And the success came. The lone goal that Nesbitt had mentioned came to fruition. Guelph hoisted the Yates Cup with a dramatic 23-17 win over the Western Mustangs in London, thanks in large part to a defensive stand in the dying seconds. The team finished 9-2 overall and produced a Dalt White Trophy winner in departing All-Canadian linebacker John Rush, who was also awarded the Presidents Trophy.
But the blueprint for the Gryphons’ memorable season was created a full year earlier when they came up just short in a 2014 Yates Cup loss to McMaster. Quarterback James Roberts was a rookie on that team and he recalls the humbling trip back after the defeat.
“I remember on that ride home turning down College Ave and thinking that there should be a trophy on this bus right now,” says Roberts. “That was kind of the point in my mind and I think everyone else's too where we said, ‘We'll win a Yates, it’s just a matter of when we can suit up next.’”
The hunger of a veteran team was evident immediately in 2015. Coach Lang had a strong leadership core in players like Nesbitt, Rush and his second-year quarterback Roberts. The established players were well respected and vocal, men who were easy to follow into battle. According to the coach, they guys truly loved one another and when that passion was combined with the physical talent and mental strength that permeated the roster, success was well within grasp.
“Football is a unique sports because you have such variety in terms of sizes, positions, and thinking,” says Lang. “Some are great players, some are average players. But they all just jelled together.
“I don’t think we had the most talented team in the OUA but we certainly had the best one in terms of teamwork and rallying together.”
A dominant 78-7 win over Waterloo in the 2015 season opener was the first of five consecutive wins, establishing the Gryphons as a force in the competitive OUA. But on October 3rd, they suffered a surprising defeat. Guelph went to Lang’s alma mater Queen’s and was handed a 23-15 loss, bringing them to 5-1 on the year.
That result was hardly a setback. In fact, it was critical to the ultimate success.
“The loss helped to reorient ourselves,” says Lang. “Maybe we were getting too full of ourselves. It revitalized the players and the team. In the locker room, I told them, ‘Let’s not forget this. There are lessons to be learned here and it will tell us a lot about who we are and where we’re going in the future.’”
Roberts says that the Gryphons’ mentality is what separated them from the pack that year – and the way they rebounded from the upset at Queen’s was proof. Guelph closed the season with consecutive wins over Windsor and Carleton, putting up 85 points in the process. They would meet the Ravens again in the OUA semi-final and won that game 33-21 to set up a Yates Cup showdown in London with undefeated Western.
“The feeling heading into the playoffs wasn't arrogant or cockiness – it was just confidence,” says Roberts. “There was a strong confidence throughout our entire locker room that we were supposed to win the Yates. It wasn't really ‘if,’ it was ‘how,’ and it was for Coach Lang.
“The goal was simple and how to get it was simple as well – come together and fight until the last second. It felt like we were just the guys no one wanted to draw. We slipped up against Queens in the regular season or else would have been undefeated but without that loss we wouldn't have understood the importance of every little detail in a football game.
“All the talk before was that Western would beat us to a pulp and we didn’t stand a chance. But we were good enough to go to the Yates. We didn't care for opinions, we cared for Coach Lang.”
That memorable day on November 14, 2015 had a distinct feel from the get go. Coach Lang likens it to the day you get married – very important but that it flies by and you’re in a fog as you experience it. The Gryphons had changed their typical road routine, coming into London the night before to make sure everyone was focused and prepared for game day. There was a big turnout at chapel, a great team meal, and an emotional speech from senior linebacker Pat McGrath. Lang, a man of strong faith, recalls a “spiritual quality” to how it all transpired.
As game time approached, the players denied the league’s request to set up the Gryphon tunnel for introductions, suggesting the idea was “bad luck.” And Coach Lang had a simple message: “I looked at them and said, ‘Gentlemen, make the next four hours the best four hours of your life to date.’”
Western buoyed the home crowd by striking first on an 11-yard touchdown run by quarterback Stevenson Bone. He would add another on the ground minutes before halftime to give the Mustangs a 14-3 lead at the break.
The Gryphons, undeterred, listened closely to the words of their leader in the locker room. Coach Lang asked his players if they believed they would win the game. The answer was “yes.” He repeated the same question several times until he heard the deafening response, “Yes Coach!” reverberating through the room.
The comeback began with a definitive one-yard touchdown run by Roberts at 9:30 of the third quarter to trim the Western lead to 14-10. Western connected on a 38-yard field goal but the Gryphons responded with the signature offensive moment of the game, a huge 36-yard connection between Roberts and star receiver Jacob Scarfone to tie it 17-17.
“The coolest feeling I remember about my entire sports life was jogging into the locker room at half in London sitting down beside Jacob and not saying any words,” says Roberts. “There was absolutely zero panic. We were down by 11 but very single person in that room knew for an absolute fact we were leaving with hardware.
“It felt like at that point at half it was impossible for us to lose.”
Roberts was right. Gabe Ferraro would add two fourth-quarter field goals and despite an opportunity on Western’s final drive, the defence, anchored by Rush’s 14 tackles and three sacks, held firm and denied the hosts from the five-yard line.
The final whistle blew and the championship that Nesbitt referred to in training camp was finally theirs. Lang recalls the joy in the immediate aftermath but also remembers the comedic panic of the training staff members as they tried to salvage all the flying Guelph helmets, which had been painted with a very expensive silver coating.
Winning a championship immediately bonded them for life.
“You have this very positive, emotional, spiritual, physical moment in time that connects you,” says Lang. “All your senses are so heightened and it’s a great relief at the end that you’ve accomplished something. You share it forever.”
The players and staff obviously wanted more from that memorable autumn but the season came to an abrupt end at Alumni Stadium when the Montreal Carabins took the Mitchell Bowl 25-10. While the loss was disappointing, it didn’t diminish what transpired the previous week. The Gryphons had achieved their lone goal – and made school history in the process.
“That year provided perspective for me in life,” says Roberts, who finished the Yates Cup with 221 passing yard and the two critical scores. “My fondest memories of being a Gryphon are that moment in the locker room at half time and seeing the faces of coaches and senior players achieve the goal of the Yates Cup.
“We created a memory that we will all be a part of the rest of our lives and we'll share the bond through that championship. It taught me more about the values of being a human being, thanks to Coach Lang, who is the most generous man I have ever known. I would still to this day run through a brick wall for him.”
Talent, physical prowess and mental strength were key factors in how 2015 played out for Gryphon Football. But it was a common goal and most importantly, love for one another that made Guelph champions.
“One of the things I learned in business is that you want to set bold goals but they have to be realistic,” says Coach Lang, who makes reference to the rings the players have to commemorate their accomplishments. “I can achieve this if I do the right thing.
“It’s a lesson they hopefully carry throughout their lives, that they can be successful, they can be champions. But it takes hard work. You don’t fall into it – it requires commitment. ’I’ve done it once in my life, I can do it again.’
“When times get tough, they reflect back that they are champions.”
written by: david dicenzo