HALIFAX—This time three years ago, the Saint Mary’s Huskies football team was finishing up a winless season. It marked the second consecutive year they went a woeful 0-8. A once proud program had officially hit rock bottom.
But how times have changed.
Heading into the final weekend of the Atlantic University Sport football season, the Huskies are now on the brink of flipping the script.
With a win Saturday against the Acadia Axemen in Wolfville, N.S., the Huskies would hit perfection with an 8-0 season, a feat they last accomplished in 2001.
“There’s definitely a pride in trying to accomplish (8-0); it’s a pretty big feat,” said Mandella Loggale, a fifth-year defensive back from Edmonton who has been with the team since the 2014 season.
“It is a big game. We can set some important school records, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and make sure we show up and play.”
Loggale was part of what the members of the football program call the “lean years,” going winless in both 2014 and 2015. When comparing the differences between today and those back-to-back disappointments, Loggale said the biggest difference is player commitment.
“When you’re having fun and when you’re winning, you want to practice harder for your teammates and your coaches,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest difference. Everybody is buying in a lot more now than we were in the past.”
The Huskies started the 180-degree turn when James Colzie III was announced as head coach in February 2016. In his first season, the team finished 2-6. Last year, it improved to 5-3 and finished second in the Atlantic University Sport conference.
This year, the Huskies have clinched first place, meaning the team gets to host the conference championship, the Loney Bowl.
“The biggest change was when coach Colzie came and the culture changed,” said John Cole, a fifth-year defensive end who played high school football for the Cole Harbour-based Auburn Eagles.
“The culture of handling all aspects of what we need to do and really focusing on winning, not just on the football field and making sure that’s OK, but also academics.”
The winning culture covers everything from work in the classroom to time in the weight room. Cole said it filters down from Colzie to the veterans and then the rest of the team.
While the players may credit Colzie with the turnaround, the coach gives credit to the team for buying in.
“We have guys that are on our team right now that were part of the 0-and-8 seasons and have the opportunity to go 8-and-0,” Colzie said before leading a team practice at Huskies Stadium this week.
“They put their trust in me. They’ve invested, put a lot of time in — as our coaches have, the players have — coming together. We’ve played some pretty good football over the past couple of years. But I will say this: Our guys have worked extremely hard.”
That hard work put the Huskies back into the U Sports top-10 rankings. The latest rankings released Tuesday have Saint Mary’s sitting in 6th, the fourth-straight week in that position.
“There’s only 27 teams (in the country), and I don’t know what the problem is with trying to be one of the best teams in the country,” said Colzie.
“That’s great for the university, obviously. It’s great for the guys. It’s great for the program.”
That success on the field extends to the rest of campus and to the extended community, including Saint Mary’s alumni and supporters of the team.
“We’ve had a great history as a university in this sport, so it’s very nice to be back in the winning column and to be representing both our university at the Atlantic stage but also in those national rankings,” said Scott Gray, director of athletics and recreation at Saint Mary’s.
“At the end of the day, our football team being successful in the fall, it makes the campus a better campus.”
The regular season wraps up Saturday with the 2 p.m. game against Acadia, a team the Huskies defeated 26-16 in September. The Huskies then get a week off to prepare for the Loney Bowl and face the winner of the semifinal between the next two best teams.
Saint Mary’s hasn’t won the AUS since 2010, the last time they finished first in the Atlantic conference.
“Yeah, excited to have (the Loney Bowl), but we’re not just here to just play in it. We want to win it,” Colzie said.
“Whoever does come here, whoever we do have to play, we have to prepare well for and be ready to play once it does happen.”