Stefan Ptaszek knows what he will tell his McMaster Marauders just before he leads them on to the field to compete for the Uteck Bowl, the CIS semi-final, for the first time as head coach.
"They're a one-game win streak from going further than any Marauder football team has gone in 40 years. That will make them one of the best teams to ever put on the maroon and grey. That would be pretty special," said Ptaszek, who is in his sixth season as head coach.
The last time the Marauders won a bowl game was in 1967. They lost four successive semi-finals from 2000 to 2003, but are riding high thanks to a victory over Western in the Yates Cup last week. If the fourth-ranked Marauders (9-1) can defeat the ninth-ranked Acadia Axemen (8-1) in Moncton on Friday, Ptaszek's team will find itself in a position to win the first Vanier Cup in McMaster history.
"This is all new ground for us. Hopefully ignorance is bliss a little bit and we can just play football," Ptaszek said in an interview earlier this week.
The team's biggest challenge, he said, will be maintaining the high level of energy they brought to their surprising upset over powerhouse Western in the OAU championship game last week.
"It was an incredible high. We spilled our guts on that field," Ptaszek said. "How you rise up from that and get back to the same level within six days – it's a tall order."
It is an especially tall order considering this team has never faced the Axemen.
"We're certainly seeing a talented, well-coached group on film," Ptaszek said. "The bottom line is we've got to play our football and do what we do well."
The Marauders led the CIS in total offence (530.5 yards a game) and passing offence (329.9). They were fourth in rushing (200.6) and fifth in points (34.6). The Axemen were 10th in total offence (423.2 yards a game), 12th in passing offence (247.8) eighth in rushing (175.5) and seventh in points (32.6).
The Marauders may have the statistical advantage, but the team's veterans, especially defensive linemen Roberto Filice and Mackenzie Dent and wide receiver Matthew Peressini, will have to step up to defeat Acadia, Ptaszek added.
"The seniors have to play their best if you're going to go the distance, and certainly that's been the case for us thus far," he said.
The Marauders will also need strong performances from quarterback Kyle Quinlan and OAU MVP wide receiver Michael DiCroce, both of whom credit Ptaszek with deftly guiding the team through a tumultuous season.
"He's just been by my side all the way through," said Quinlan, the fourth-year starter who was handed a three-game suspension in the middle of the season for an off-field incident.
DiCroce, who averaged a CIS-best 113 yards a game, said the off-field distractions this season drew the team closer together, which may ultimately prove to be an advantage as it goes forward in the playoffs.
"We battled through a lot of adversity throughout this year," DiCroce said. "We've had to support each other through rough times. It hasn't been easy getting ready for games. It's been back-breaking at times. But we've rallied behind our players. [Ptaszek]has been the glue that's been holding this team together. Whenever we've had a rough go or someone has fallen off, he's picked us up."
Ptaszek addressed the Quinlan controversy by saying, "The wonderful thing about football is it helps these young men grow and learn about working together and hard work and discipline. Along the way in locker rooms of 80 young men, we're going to make some bad decisions. … I don't agree with everything my young me do, but we support them regardless."
The 40-year-old coach, who won a Vanier Cup with Wilfrid Laurier as a player in 1991, played in the CFL and then won another Vanier Cup at Laurier as offensive co-ordinator, left his alma mater to become McMaster's head coach in 2005.
"He and his coaching staff, the team around him, they're just very passionate," said Jeff Giles, McMaster's director of athletics. "They know their football, but more importantly they're passionate about what they do, and that passion flows through to our student athletes. This year there's a sense of determination coming from our coaching staff that this is our year."