The triumph of the decade
The 2005 season is one that will be forever remembered as one of the most successful seasons, not only in Wilfrid Laurier football history, but also in the annals of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). That year saw the Golden Hawks do something that has only been accomplished 11 other times in the history of Canadian university football: complete a 12-0 season, winning the Vanier Cup.
“That was a season that will never be forgotten,” said manager of football operations and head coach Gary Jeffries. “It meant so much to so many people, life-long bonds were created, it was just such a special year. Every time I see someone who was involved in that year, the sense of joy that exists is just incredible.”
Coming into the autmn of 2005, the Hawks were fresh off a season in which they went undefeated until the national semi-final where they fell to Laval Rouge et Or.
Armed with the experience and talent of fifth-year veterans such as quarterback Ryan Pyear, running back Nick Cameron, receiver Andrew Agro and defensive back Ian Logan, just to name a few, the Hawks were poised to make a run at the CIS’s ultimate prize.
“There was certainly a special feeling before that season,” said Pyear. “I distinctly remember [fourth-year receiver] Joel Wright saying in pre-season that we were going to win the Vanier Cup and there was no way we weren’t going to win it… But we really didn’t get too excited, we all took it one week at a time. Deep down though, we knew we were special group and we had the opportunity to do something special.”
Befitting of the incredible talent they possessed, the Hawks opened their 2005 season with a 45-0 blow-out over the Queen’s Gaels. This was a sign of things to come as the purple and gold rolled through the rest of the regular season, going 8-0 for the second year in a row.
“We really had the belief that we were going to sweep the OUA right from the beginning,” said Pyear. “That was the kind of confidence that we had. We knew it doesn’t happen that often, to have the amount of talent at every position across the board that we had.”
Continuing their winning streak through the Ontario University Athletcs (OUA) playoffs, the Hawks won their second-straight Yates Cup as provincial champions.
All that stood between the Hawks and their first appearance in the Vanier Cup since winning it in 1991 was the Acadia Axemen, who they would take on in Halifax.
The purple and gold would enter their national semi-finals against the Axemen with a chip on their shoulders after losing 30-11 the previous year, in a game in which Pyear threw an uncharacteristic three interceptions.
Laurier’s Andy Baechler makes a diving catch in front of a Huskies’ defender.
“We definitely had something to prove in that game,” said Pyear. “We had done a good job in improving upon our previous seasons up to that point and that was another shot at doing the same.”
The Hawks went on to dominate the 2005 national semi-final, winning 31-10, with Pyear throwing for 329 yards and four touchdowns on his way to being named the game’s MVP.
“It was a surreal feeling, walking off that field knowing we were going to the big show,” said Jeffries. “I can remember going out to celebrate with the players, the parents and everyone from the university who had made the trip, we were all just on cloud nine. But at the same time, everyone knew we had one more to win, the mission wasn’t accomplished.”
Both Jeffries and Pyear describe the week leading up to the Vanier Cup as a blur. There was an incredible energy around the university, but all the team had their minds on was their opponent, the Saskatchewan Huskies.
Despite the fact that the teams entered the game with identical 11-0 records, the Hawks entered the game as the underdogs. Not only were most experts picking the Huskies to win, some were predicting a Saskatchewan blow-out of scores such as 46-7. But this didn’t faze the Hawks. From the moment they walked onto the field at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne stadium, they didn’t have a shred of doubt in their minds that they would come out as national champions.
“We had won some big games against some good football teams to get there, so we didn’t think for a second that we couldn’t play with those guys,” said Jeffries. “And after we played the first quarter, any doubt anyone else could‘ve had, was gone.”
“Once we got into the dressing room [at halftime] and we were up 8-7, we felt we had proved that it wasn’t going to be a blowout like everyone had predicted,” added Pyear.
Second Half Battle
In the third quarter, the Hawks extended their lead to 15-7, however that was where the Huskies seemed to wake up and eventually the purple and gold found themselves trailing 23-21 late in the fourth quarter. With just over a minute to play, the Hawks were faced with a third down and 16 to go for the first down. In the most crucial play of his season -possibly his career- Pyear completed a pass to Dante Luciani, getting the first down and keeping the Hawks’ championship dreams alive.
“I don’t know how, but I knew it was a first down before they measured it,” said Pyear. “So I was already looking to the sidelines for the next play and when they signalled [the first down] and the crowd just went nuts. I remember it was so loud that it kind of broke my attention and I just took a look around and thought ‘wow I’m in the Vanier Cup, this is it.’”
A few plays later, the Hawks would get the ball down to the 25 yard line and kicker Brian Devlin lined up for the biggest kick in Laurier football history.
“Our whole sideline was holding hands, and I started to think ‘is this really going to end the way I imagined?’” said Pyear. “Once he booted it, we knew it was going through and it was just pandemonium after that.
Devlin’s 32-yard field goal sailed through the uprights to make the score 24-23 with 19 seconds left and once those final seconds ticked off the clock, a wave of purple and gold came flooding onto the field to celebrate with the national champion Golden Hawks.
Head coach Gary Jeffries shares an emotional hug and some tears of joy after the Vanier Cup win.
“I just remember hoards and hoards of people flying on to the field and everyone was crying and hugging,” said Jeffries. “It was a victory for the entire Laurier community. The beneficiaries on the day happened to be the 2005 football team, but in reality if was for all the Golden Hawks.”
The win was the second national championship in Laurier history and for Pyear and the other fifth-year players, it was the perfect way to cap off their careers.
“I remember thinking that if I never touched a football again after that night, I would be just as happy as if I did,” said Pyear. “The feeling of satisfaction was just incredible. All the hard work and battling we had done over our careers was worth it at that point.”