Golden Bears football returns after lengthy hiatus
It has been a long time between conference games for the Bears. They have not played since losing the Canada West semifinal 28-23 to the Saskatchewan Huskies in November 2019
The University of Alberta Golden Bears football team is heading back on the field after having the previous season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bears will play the first of a six-game Canada West season when they host the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds on Saturday (1 p.m.) at Foote Field.
It has been a long time between conference games for the Bears. They have not played since losing the Canada West semifinal 28-23 to the Saskatchewan Huskies in November 2019.
“It’s funny, because we haven’t really had a layoff,” said Bears head coach Chris Morris. “From games yes; but we’ve been together, we had practices all last fall and we were lifting all winter and the only thing we weren’t allowed to do was play.
“So there have been a few interruptions with COVID, but we’ve been together all this time. It’s just exciting to get to play games again, which is obviously the reason you do all the practising.”
Despite losing the entire 2020 season to the pandemic, the Bears are optimistic of its chances of making the playoffs this season.
The top four teams in the six-team conference qualify for the postseason. The Golden Bears have been in the playoffs the previous two seasons.
“We were a top-10 team in 2019 and we lost a real close playoff game,” Morris said. “We lost a couple of guys, but we’ve got a lot of returning players. We have a lot of really good young players. Our All-star quarterback is back and we have some really good pieces. We’re just excited to play.”
Morris is heading into his ninth season as Bears head coach. The former CFL standout has rebuilt the program, which was considered the punching bag of the conference for a number of seasons.
“We were excited going into the 2020 season and we didn’t get to play, and we have a lot of guys who really believe in what we’re doing,” Morris said. “We have a bunch of guys that could have gone in the CFL draft who decided to defer this past year. We have eight guys that could have gone in the draft last year and only one of them went forward and the rest of them all deferred.
“That says a lot about their experience here and where they feel we’re going as a program. It’s just going to be so much fun to watch these kids play.”
The Bears dusted off the rust last weekend with an exhibition game against the University of Regina Rams in Medicine Hat. The Bears lost 34-25, but held a five-point lead at half time before emptying their bench.
“We were winning at half time and we put in a bunch of really young kids in the second half,” Morris said. “We ended up losing the game, but we felt really good about the experience, we felt it was a really good deal for everybody.”
Now the game counts for real for the first time in 694 days.
Bears quarterback Brad Launhardt is back for his final year of eligibility and is surrounded by talent on both sides of the ball. It’s the team Morris envisioned putting on the field when he took over the program in 2012.
“We have lots of good players at every position,” Morris said. “In previous years, especially my first few years here, if a starter got hurt, we were in real trouble. We were putting someone out there who was really young and in Canada West really young players don’t tend to fare that well.
“But we’re really deep and we have talent all the way through our roster. I feel like if you look at our team, our overall depth is far superior of what we’ve ever been.”
Canada West has generally been considered the toughest conference in the country and the 2019 Vanier Cup champion University of Calgary Dinos will once again be the team to beat.
Along with the Thunderbirds, the Golden Bears will host the Manitoba Bisons on Oct. 1, and the Regina Rams on Oct. 30. They’ll travel to face the Saskatchewan Huskies on Oct. 16, the Dinos on Oct. 24, and close out the regular season on Nov. 6 at UBC.
The Canada West Conference winner advances to the national semifinal on Nov. 27. The Vanier Cup will be hosted by Laval University on Dec. 4, in Quebec City.
“If you play in Canada West, there are no weak players or weak teams,” Morris said. “If you look across the rest of the country, there’s two or three teams in each conference that are dominant and the rest take their turns getting beat up by those dominant teams.
“We used to be that team in Canada West; we were a team that really struggled. There was a three-year period where the U of A didn’t win, but that’s over now, we’re right there with the rest of these teams. We have great athletes in our program and I think the strength of playing in Canada West and why so many kids get drafted (into CFL) out of Canada West, is that there is so much talent across the board.”