Win or lose, Faulds and Laurier football have exceeded expectations

Four seasons ago, Michael Faulds was hired as the new head coach of the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks football team. He was young — only 29-years-old — and spent the years prior to joining the Hawks as a coordinator for the once 1-7 York Lions.

He came in at a time Laurier was on the decline, having not won a Yates Cup since 2005 — the same year they won their last Vanier Cup — and needed some help.

But he was discredited. He was in a room of skeptics. He was a first-time coach. No one expected much. I sure didn’t.

Now, almost four seasons later, Faulds has a 7-1 Laurier football team. He just won an Ontario University Athletics semifinal.

And, almost four seasons later, he’s taking the Hawks back to the Yates Cup.

Faulds was and is always ready. When he began as bench boss in January 2013, the former Western Mustang quarterback consistently mentioned that even if the Hawks went 0-8 in his first season, they would be the best 0-8 team in the country.

They finished 1-7. They were a young team filled with first-year recruits and a lot of gaping holes that didn’t quite have the parts developed. It was the little engine that could, getting so close but never quite there. It needed time.

In Faulds’ second year, the pieces started coming together. There were wins — four of them, to be exact — a lot of holes but a lot of shining moments. In just his second year as bench boss, Faulds took the Hawks back to the playoffs.

But they didn’t go much further. One and done, the Hawks were eliminated in the quarter-finals and sent back to fill up Faulds’ drawing board once again.

Laurier was back in the quarter-finals the next year with four wins again. With everyone in the country counting them out, a Halloween haunting ensued. And a formidable one, at that.

The Hawks upset the McMaster Marauders to move onto the semifinals. Those once first-year, young recruits were developing this team into a new brand of Laurier football.

But again, that was as far as they would end up. But it was a milestone in the Hawks’ long-term plan. Every year they were getting better. Every year they oiled up the little engine that could.

And now, Saturday, we will witness the ultimate testament of Golden Hawk football.

Saturday will be evidence to whether or not this Laurier team is legit. The critics say they had a relatively easy schedule, avoiding the strong aerial attack of the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the defensive McMaster Marauders powerhouse during the regular season. Their only loss came to the first-place Western Mustangs. Aside from a quarterback flip, a few mediocre offensive outings and the typical bumps and bruises along the way, Laurier had a pretty simple walk to the bye.

But the semifinal shocked a lot of people. Analysts called the 21-19 victory an upset and loyal fans fought back. Eyes turned toward the Hawks’ quarterback Michael Knevel, who played outstanding in his first career playoff game, showing composure and adapting to a tough Marauder defence. The story lines began and continued, all looking at the new kids in the OUA final.

Saturday will be the opportunity for Laurier football to shut up all of the skeptics. It’s the opportunity Faulds wanted to prove —what he’s preached for the last four seasons. It’s the opportunity Laurier’s department of athletics and recreation has been planning for, eagerly preparing and silently eyeing since Faulds took over.

It’s the damn Yates Cup. And of course a victory would be spectacular — you don’t play sports to settle for second. And Laurier will more than likely have the support of nine other OUA teams that would like to see a different shade of purple crowned champion.

But win or lose, Faulds has already proven to the critics that said he was too young, too inexperienced and too disconnected with what Laurier football needed, that he is the man for the job. He grew a solid group of fourth-year veterans that are now scattered throughout the CFL’s top rankings for the draft this year.

Win or lose, Laurier is back. They’re back in the national conversation. It’s the last missing piece to where Laurier lies among the greats in this conference, and in this country.

Will the Yates Cup be easy? Absolutely not.

The little engine that could still needs its oil. But now, it’s a full machine.

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