The Windsor AKO Fratmen may be hosting the Jostens Cup, Canadian Junior Football League semifinal, this weekend, but they are well aware they are underdogs.
The AKO Fratmen won their first Ontario Football Conference title since 1999 on Saturday - upsetting the Hamilton Hurricanes 16-9 - and now face the powerhouse Vancouver Island Raiders on Saturday.
The game stands to show the disparity between the two leagues. Windsor was the last team from the OFC to win the Canadian Bowl, since then the national title has been dominated by the BCFC and the Prairie Football Conference. The Raiders alone have won three national championships in that time.
"Any OFC team that goes into the final is viewed as the underdog, with the lack of success that Ontario has had," said head coach Mike LaChance, attributing the drought to the competition for players in the region and much smaller budgets. "It's the Yankees versus the Twins and my team's the Twins. We're on the small budget, which is alright, but it certainly presents challenges." The Fratmen went 6-2-0 this season, and have their own stable of stars.
They are led by their defence, in particular OFC defensive player of the year, outside linebacker Mason Beekhuis.
The fourth-year defender broke the AKO Fratmen record for sacks in a season, with 12.5, adding 24 tackles and seven assists. He has the ability to stuff the run and get pressure on the quarterback.
"He plays with an attitude, he plays angry and he likes to separate people from the football. He doesn't tackle to bring somebody down, he tackles to bring them out," said LaChance. "He's a big time player for us, I thought he was best defensive player in the OFC, and he's as good a linebacker as I've coached in 17 years."
When the QB can get the ball off, he runs into another problem, cornerback Austin Crumb. The CIS transfer was an OFC all-star at the position with 11 tackles, five assists, a forced fumble a fumble recovery and three interceptions. But he was even more dangerous in the return game, taking three kicks back for touchdowns in six games. By the end of the year teams were not kicking to him at all.
"When the ball is in his hands, he's special," said LaChance. "He's a big defensive back, he's over 200 pounds, so he's able to press and he's able to be physical with receivers, get his hands on people and knock them off routes."
The offence is built around the running game, lead by punishing six-foot-one, 210-pound running back Terrance Crawford, who had 168 yards on 25 carries in the OFC final alone.
Their quarterback situation is similar to the Raiders, in that they have an 18-year-old rookie, Austin Lumley. He's not going to put up big stats - finishing the year 83-for-165 for 1,130 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions - but what he does do is take care of the ball.
He also has a terrific big-game resume, winning five championships from Grade 8-12, losing just three games over that time.
"The kid wins where ever he's been," said LaChance. "He seems to do the little things, he makes the big play at the right time. .. and he seems to know when to step up and know when he needs to be the secondary guy to our running game."
LaChance was an assistant coach on the 1999 team. He is fully aware of the challenge ahead of the Fratmen and the importance of this run.
"I've been a head coach 11 seasons and I've been to the OFC final six times and this is my first championship, it's been a fun season to finally get over the top," he said. "We've had some real good teams that just stumbled in the final.
"The team is still hungry, they think they are capable of more, and I think they are too. We may be the underdog, but we're going into it with confidence and feeling good about our game."
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