Often, the concept of a winning culture is discussed when a team wins consistently. The axiom ‘winning begets winning’ speaks to this notion. It is difficult to precisely ascertain what a winning culture is, but when Blake Nill left St. Mary’s University in Halifax returning to the University of Calgary to become the head coach of the football team in 2006, a winning culture arrived with him.
During his tenure at SMU, Nill’s teams appeared in four Vanier Cups, winning two of them. Nill took the U of C program from a fringe playoff team and turned them into a squad that perennially threatens at a national level. Calgary was not foreign territory for Nill, who is a graduate of U of C and also played for the Calgary Stampeders. This will be the seventh season for coach Nill — the last four seasons, the Dinos have captured the Hardy Cup as Canada West champions. This season they are poised to become the first team to ever win five straight.
Coming off an unbeaten regular season in 2011, it is no forgone conclusion that the Dinos will be crowned a fifth time.
The Dinos are exceedingly strong on the offensive line with CFL draftees Kirby Fabien, Reed Alexander and Carson Rockhill returning to protect third pivot Eric Dzwilewski. The ground will certainly be where the Dinos will make their mark this season with a dominant offensive line and the return of national all-star running back Steven Lumbala. The Dinos graduated two-time CW defensive MVP linebacker Sam Hurl will be replaced by sophomore Cory Roboch.
One of the most intriguing new faces is at the receiver position. A native of Laval, Quebec, Elie Bouka left home and headed west to suit up for the Dinos. Bouka’s speed, blocking abilities and big-play potential has eyebrows raised and expectations sky-high. It is very likely that Bouka will slide in as the Dinos best vertical threat this season, something the Dinos have lacked since the departures of Anthony Parker and Nate Coehoorn the past two seasons.
On the defensive side, the Dinos are anchored by prospective CFL first round pick Linden Gaydosh and B.C. Lions draftee Jordan Verdone. At defensive half back, the Dinos welcome back Doctor Cassama, who missed the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL. Cassama did not burn a year of eligibility in 2011 and therefore is entering his second year as a Dino. Cassama, a native of Kristianstad, Sweden, returns at an opportune moment for the Dinos secondary who lost standouts Michael Lau and Chudi Nzekwu and will look to Cassama for leadership.
This ability to recruit highly-touted prospects has become the talisman of the Nill regime and is the most important development in Dinos football. Collegiate sport is a continual process of loss and recovery. The top-tier programs are the ones that can restock their cupboards without sacrificing the on-field product.
The first test of the 2012 season came against the Regina Rams on September 1 at McMahon Stadium. Last season, the Dinos beat the Rams in the first round of the playoffs en route to an appearance — and an unfortunate loss — in the Mitchell Bowl.
It didn’t take long for Bouka to show off his skill set in the opening game. The opening kickoff of the 2012 season was returned 64 yards by Bouka and was inches away from a touchdown. However, Bouka suffered a right ankle injury and watched the second half of the game on crutches from the sideline.
It was certainly a game to remember for true-freshman slotback Brett Blaszko, whose first catch in Canadian Interuniversity Sport was a 65-yard touchdown. The first touch of his varsity career ended in the endzone, an experience that he said was one of the best he has ever had in football.
“When I broke away and stiff-armed the guy at the 10 is when I knew it was reality,” said Blaszko. The six-foot-four Burlington, Ontario native was highly recruited out of high school and is an accomplished soccer player as well, which means that, in a pinch, Blaszko can punt or kick.
“It was awesome, it was a great experience for sure, knowing that I am a part of a great tradition and knowing that I am a part of a successful team. It’s just awesome,” said Blaszko. “I had a previous coach who played for coach Nill. I had my visit out here and I couldn’t say no to it.”
There was concern entering the game from Nill because the Dinos did not have any exhibition games this season, the test against the Rams was their first real scrimmage against hostile tacklers. At times in this first game, the Dinos looked rusty. Despite a statistically sound game, Dzwilewski threw two interceptions and at times the defense looked porous. The second half unequivocally became the Steven Lumbala show when he gained 107 yards rushing in the third-quarter alone.
It was a lunchbox-style 37–21 win for the Dinos who will be pleased with some aspects of the offense, but the team was far from mid-season form. The Dinos relied heavily on contributions from their stars and finished the game with 514 total yards, 329 of them in the air.
“Dzwilewski stepped up in his play. Much more composure, maturity and much better decision-making,” said Nill after the game. “The run defense wasn’t too bad but we weren’t playing against a primary run team.” Nill acknowledged that playing against Regina brings special challenges: “Regina is a pass offense. They have got the best pass offense in this conference and one of the best in the country. Our concern was [Regina Quarterback Marc] Mueller and [receiver Mark] McConkey. I am grateful we got out of there with a win because it was our first game and we had a lot of wrinkles to iron out.”
As the Dinos prepare for their Kickoff opener against the University of Alberta, they will undoubtedly look to tighten some screws. With a 1–0 start to the season, the Dinos look like a team that should be at or near the top of the CW conference by November. The Dinos have the personnel, the coaching and the experience. Now, it is all about execution.