The lead-up to last year’s Dinos football season had a pre-determined feel to it. Posters for Canada’s top-ranked university football team popped up across campus even before the season started, listing the game schedule all the way to the national championship Vanier Cup like it was all but inevitable.
After narrowly losing the championship the previous November, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) player of the year Erik Glavic was returning and ready—along with most of the team’s key starters—to quarterback the Dinos all the way to the Vanier Cup. Then in early September, everything changed as fast as you can say “ACL” when Glavic went down with a serious knee injury in the first game of the season.
Head coach Blake Nill was also in pain. “I’ve been around long enough to know that usually the key to winning the national championship is a senior quarterback. And when you have to start a rookie? You think: here we go again. Start rebuilding.”
Enter the other Eric. The new Eric. The hitherto unknown 18-year-old Eric Dzwilewski (pronounced: de-LESS-key) fresh from Boise, Idaho’s Centennial High School. The quarterback-of-the-future forced into the role of quarterback-of-last-resort to prevent the dream season deteriorating into a nightmare.
But the very next week, young Eric pulled off a win. And the team rallied around him. The Dinos kept winning. Four in a row to help power the University of Calgary to a 6-2 record and a third consecutive Canada West Hardy Cup victory and their second straight appearance at the Vanier Cup after all. In the November snow of Quebec City, they lost the national championship again last year, but didn’t come away empty handed. Dzwilewski, the first-year American who kept them in the hunt when things looked grim, was named Canadian university football’s rookie of the year.
This year, everything’s changed again with one of the biggest player turnovers in Nill’s memory. Erik Glavic and his sore knees have retired from football with just a few courses to go on his economics degree. A record-setting six other Dinos were taken in the spring’s Canadian Football League draft—speedy receivers Anthony Parker and Nathan Coehoorn were each selected in the top five. All in all, Nill thinks he could lose upwards of 12 starters from last year, putting more pressure on the remaining veterans.
Nervous anticipation for the start of this season is not limited to the football club, though. There’s been exciting changes in the offseason to a number of Dinos teams to heighten expectations. The women’s soccer team has a new—and full-time—coach set on bolstering the program and infusing it with international flavour. Men’s basketball has given its chances of success a giant boost with the addition of a fifth-year All-Canadian from Ontario. And the national spotlight will be on teams like women’s basketball and field hockey with the University of Calgary playing host to the CIS championships in both sports.
With the football team, all eyes will be on Dzwilewski. Though he won’t turn 20 until the end of this season, he will be looked on to provide team leadership. And he relishes the opportunity. “Regardless of the guys who’ve left, I still think we’re going to have a tremendous season. We still have an outstanding core of very experienced guys and the expectation I have is that we’ll be heading back to the Vanier Cup for a third year in a row.”
The big game this fall is slated to be played in Vancouver, and not only does Dzwilewski expect to be marching his team across the Rockies for it, but he intends “to win it all this time.” There’s no swagger or bravado in his words or demeanour, despite winning every game he started last year and snagging that rookie of the year trophy just four days after his 19th birthday. “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, but honestly I don’t think it’s hit me yet. Maybe it will this season when I start playing, but I try to be as humble as I can because I don’t want to boast. I just think it’s bad karma. That’s how I was raised.”
Looking at him without pads, you’d think there’d be more rink than gridiron to him. An even six feet tall and 180 pounds, he’s lean and strong but not at all imposing. Throw in his polite charm, and he’s pretty far from classic quarterback stereotype. Yet his size, features and slight American accent easily draw comparisons to another northwestern U.S. kid who crossed the border to play ball, by the name of Dave Dickenson. And that’s not a bad thing at all. Dickenson is still considered one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play for the University of Montana and had a storied Canadian Football League career playing for both Calgary and Vancouver before joining the Stampeders’ coaching staff.
The scouting report on Dzwilewski (known unfortunately—and unfairly—as Little Eric in his first year compared to the six-foot-six, 230-pound Glavic) centres on his mobility and running game. “His strength is essentially his ability to run the football,” says Coach Nill. “He has a tremendous arm and can throw the ball when he needs to. But we didn’t recruit him because we saw an American guy was available, we thought this was exactly the type of kid who fits perfectly into our style of play.”
That recruiting process began more than three years ago, when a scout out of northern Oregon phoned Nill and said he’d found a kid who would be too small to play quarterback in the American college system, but who might fit nicely into the Canadian game. The Dinos kept their eyes on him, and called him during their playoff run two years ago just to get his blood flowing. But when it comes to recruiting players from far away for university sports teams, you’ve got to start and finish your efforts with mom and dad. “My mom initially was just not digging it at all. She wasn’t too happy,” says Dzwilewski. “But my dad was probably more excited than I was when I committed here. He’d played college football in Connecticut and baseball at the Coast Guard Academy, so he’s a real athlete.”
To be fair, mom warmed up to the idea of her youngest child going off to a foreign country for school and football. And she was there in Quebec City when he won the top rookie trophy.
Dzwilewski likes Calgary, he likes the campus, he likes the after-football opportunities afforded to Dinos by the Fifth Quarter alumni association. Heck, he even likes our freakishly large football field. “The Canadian game suits me better as a quarterback. Everything’s so spread out compared to the American fields and it really fits into my style of play and helps me see things better.”
With a series of exciting announcements over the past summer, there’ll be several other good fits with the University of Calgary’s sports teams this coming season. To start with, Australian Matthew Shepherd becomes the first full-time women’s soccer coach in Dinos history. Last year the team just narrowly missed the playoffs and expectations are high that his significant coaching experience at all levels will give the team that needed boost to get to the next level.
A former semi-professional player in Australia and the U.K., Shepherd started coaching 14 years ago and led the University of New South Wales women’s team to a silver medal at the Australian University Games. He also returned to his native Australia for three years to coach the Melbourne Victory Women’s team in the Australian W-League competition and directed the Victorian (Australia) women’s national training centre, responsible for developing the best players in that state.
After moving to Canada, he taught high school, coached British Columbia’s provincial team and worked with our national training centre as well. “I want to turn things around quickly for the program and make the playoffs. Hopefully, success then breeds success,” says Shepherd.
Only about four players are not returning this year so the team is both experienced and smart—with 10 players being named as academic all-Canadians last year. “The team is very excited about this, and it’s something they’ve wanted for some time—to be considered on the same footing as some of the other core athletic programs at the University of Calgary,” says Shepherd. The full-time coach will mean more support for the athletes, more year-round mentoring and more organized off-season training and club play as a squad.
He will also begin working on building the future by recruiting more of the top local talent. With nearly one quarter of the national team coming from Alberta, Shepherd hopes to lure more players back to Calgary instead of going to school elsewhere in Canada or the U.S. “Calgary’s a hotbed for women’s soccer. And I’m trying to create an environment where players who are serious about playing for Canada can stay home and still get that experience. They don’t need to go away.”
At the same time, Shepherd intends to give the team a welcomed international flavour by recruiting more foreign students from Australia and Asia “to spruce things up a bit.” And he hopes to organize off-season trips overseas for the team to travel, see the world and play soccer against clubs they’d normally never dream of playing. “I think that sort of experience enriches the players on a whole variety of levels.”
The men’s basketball team will also be given a jump-start this coming season with the addition of Boris Bakovic, the six-foot-eight All-Canadian who has chosen to play his fifth and final year of CIS eligibility with the Dinos after four years playing for Ryerson University in Toronto. The two-time Ryerson athlete of the year said he wanted to experience a different city and different conference (Canada West) before he wraps up his marketing degree. “Calgary just seemed like a great fit for me.”
The team struggled to an 8-16 record last season due in part to a rash of injuries. The hope is that Bakovic will be the big-and-strong missing piece of the puzzle that will enable the team to return to its accustomed level of play where it can legitimately challenge for the national title. It’s hoped he will complement Canada West rookie of the year Matt Letkeman (who played for the national under-19 team in Lithuania this past summer) and fifth-year standout Tyler Fidler. “It’s a nice atmosphere where the guys and coach are really welcoming,” says Bakovic. “I certainly hope that we’re just one or two pieces away from great things.”
The University of Calgary’s sports program will also get welcome attention when it hosts the CIS women’s field hockey championships in early November and the women’s basketball Final 8 tournament in March of next year. Since 2006, the University of Calgary has played host to at least one CIS championship event every year. And this will continue through until at least 2015 when the campus hosts the CIS women’s hockey championship. “We consider it a privilege to host CIS nationals and have a reputation for doing them justice as hosts,” says Ron Wuotila, BPE’91, the university’s new director of athletics and recreation. “The opportunity to host the field hockey and women’s basketball events this upcoming year is exciting and it fits into our strategic plan—it is imperative that we provide our student athletes with the most challenging competitive schedule and by hosting these events our athletes are able to prepare to play with the very best in the country.”
Field hockey wunderkind and now senior national team member Carolina Romeo says hosting the national championships could easily help produce one of the team’s best years yet. “In recent years, we always seem to be just a few points out of the playoffs, but this year we hope to make it in on merit as first or second in Canada West, even though the host team automatically gets invited.”
The team, which should be largely the same as last year’s lineup, will have one last shot for glory before a good 60 per cent of the players retire or graduate after this season. And they will also enjoy continuity on the coaching staff, led by Jenn Swagar, who was named the CIS field hockey coach of the year last year.
Romeo captured headlines across Canada back in 2008 when she became, at age 15, the youngest female athlete in the University of Calgary’s—and Canadian—history to play for a varsity sports team. The Schulich School of Engineering student has been named to the All-Canadian team for the past two years and continues to have a blast. “It’s been a great three years, they’ve just flown by,” says Romeo, who has two years left on her engineering degree. “As a whole, field hockey and playing for the Dinos has brought me an experience I haven’t found anywhere else, because you’re playing for something bigger.”
There can be no doubt that the Dinos program is something bigger. If all goes according to plan this season, it will also be something better with the impressive array of new players, new coaches, talent and awards. The pride of the university’s varsity teams shines through on grass and mud, courts, pools and ice. It draws attention and respect and continues to attract the best, strongest and brightest to the University of Calgary.