X-Men ready to tackle new AUS football season

X-Men ready to tackle new AUS football season

White and Blue shooting for third consecutive Loney Bowl title

By Corey LeBlanc

ANTIGONISH – The back-to-back conference champion STFX X-Men have set the standard for Atlantic University Sport (AUS) football over the past two seasons.

In consecutive years since the return to action after the COVID-19 global pandemic wiped out the 2020 campaign, the White and Blue have captured two Loney Bowls, while posting an unblemished record in the conference's regular season and playoffs.

With that recent resume, one might think that the X-Men would have swagger as they embark on a three-peat. Although they are confident in their ability to reach that goal, there is no sense of entitlement; no guarantees. They know there is much to do in order to have their school's name etched on the Loney Bowl, which bears the name of the iconic late head coach of the White and Blue, for a third consecutive time.

"We are not looking too far ahead; not to sound cliché, but we are focused on taking it one play, one game at a time," X-Men head coach Gary Waterman – the 2022 AUS and USPORTS coach of the year – said.

Describing it as a "new year," he explained that this X-Men roster – both newcomers and returnees – is focused on "forging its identity."

Waterman also stressed the importance of "not beating ourselves," improving each week and – of course – staying healthy.

"Again, it is all about taking it one day at a time," he added.

In an interview with STFX Athletics during training camp, Waterman called the off-season commitment made by his returning players as "fantastic."

He described how the 36-19 home loss to the Saskatchewan Huskies in the 2022 Uteck Bowl – one of two USPORTS semi-final football games – is fueling his returning student-athletes; an approach that has trickled down to White and Blue newcomers.

"We came up short – our guys weren't happy," Waterman, a setback that left his charges "highly motivated," which has been channeled into making a return as "bigger, stronger and faster" student-athletes.

"They are in great shape," he added of his returnees.

And, when it comes to the X-Men newcomers, Waterman offered that they started "getting up to speed" with what the program wants to do during Zoom meetings over the summer.

"Everyone is off to a great start," the former X-Men defensive back said.

Smothering 'D'

STFX will return 21 out of 24 starters from their 2022 championship squad; 12 on defense and nine on offense.

"They fly to the ball," Waterman offered of the defense, which he described as "very opportunistic" in 2022 in leading not only the AUS, but also USPORTS, in takeaways, including 14 interceptions.

And, when it comes to points allowed, he noted that the X-Men were "stingy" last season, surrendering only 83 points or 10.4 per game.

"We want to build on that success from last season," Waterman added.

All-Canadian Alex Fedchun (Calgary, AB) – a draft pick of the CFL's Ottawa Red Blacks – was named the conference's top lineman in 2022, garnering nine – the second most in the country – of the team's 27 sacks. He finished fifth in the AUS with 38 tackles. 

Junior DL Zechariah Willems (Tiny, ON), who was named a conference all-star as a sophomore in 2022, also returns to help anchor the X-Men defensively up front. He collected six sacks last season.

In 2022, STFX yielded the fewest rushing (83.3) and passing (164.6) yards per game under defensive coordinator Jon Svec.

AUS all-star Dyton Blackett (Canning, NS), who attended CFL camp with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, leads a quality corps of linebackers. There is also Josh Connors (Toronto, ON) – who Waterman described as "energetic and physical" – returning in that second tier.

Zach Taylor (Nanaimo, BC), with two interceptions, made an immediate impact – as a freshman – in 2022.

In the secondary, halfback Brandyn Martin (Melfort, SK), who played in the 2023 East-West game, and teammate cornerback Liam Wilde (Calgary, AB), return from conference all-star campaigns in 2022. Fifth-year former AUS all-star Ethan Mastin (Chilliwack, BC) brings talent and experience to the X-Men.

"We are definitely really comfortable with our experience level, depth and talent," Waterman said of the X-Men defense.

Electrifying 'O'

The high-flying offense for the White and Blue returns the All-Canadian dynamic duo of quarterback Silas Fagnan (Bonnyville, AB) and running back Malcolm Bussey (Hammonds Plains, NS), who captured the past two AUS most valuable player awards, respectively.

Fagnan led the conference in passing with 1,935 yards and 241.9 per game, while Bussey topped the AUS with 881 rushing yards and 110.1 per game.

Under the leadership of offensive coordinator Dave Van Den Heuvel – an Antigonish native – the pair helped lead the X-Men to an AUS-best 32.6 points and 404.6 yards per game, along with 26 touchdowns – 13 rushing and 13 passing.  

Helping cement the vaunted attack is the offensive line – one featuring up-and-coming young talent – led by senior stalwart Chris Verheyen (Frankford, ON), along with the Bluenose sophomore tandem of Ryan Arenburg (Dayspring, NS) and 2022 conference all-star Will Chapman (Bedford, NS).

A trio of AUS all-star receivers are back to catch passes from Fagnan: Zachary Houde (Thetford Mines, QC), the 2022 conference rookie of the year, Ben Harrington (Dartmouth, N.S.) and Zakariya Karim (Ottawa, ON).

"We expect another big season from them," Waterman said.

In 2022, Houde and Harrington, with 33 receptions apiece, tied for first in the conference. Houde led conference with 511 receiving yards and yards per game (63.9), with Harrington second (411) and third (51.4), and Karim fourth (379) and (47.4), in each respective category.

The group also has depth, including speedster Devaughn Blackwood (Kanata, ON).

Waterman agreed that the goal – once again – is to have a balanced attack, one capable on the ground and in the air.

"We are really dangerous," he said, adding the roster boasts players who can "break open" the game.

Getting their kicks

As for special teams, which have become a strong suit since the arrival of veteran CFL head coach Jim Daley as coordinator, the X-Men return both kickers from last season: Ben Hadley (Halifax, NS), who was named the conference's all-star placekicker in 2022, and Max Capriotti (Mount Hope, ON).

"We think we have two number-one kickers," Waterman said.

The pair benefits from the ever-improving play of long-snapper Joe Hancock (London, ON).

And, the X-Men mentor noted, they have "dynamic" returners – a group led by Harrington.

"They have bought into the culture," Waterman offered of his student-athletes embracing the importance of excelling on that side of the ball, along with the mentorship of Daley.

He added, "Everyone has responded really well."

Waterman said, "They play fast, with effort and responsibility."

When it comes to the potential on special teams, he added, "We are super excited."

New to White and Blue

When asked about newcomers expected to make an immediate impact, Waterman noted, "We have a tough roster to crack."

Nevertheless, he said, there are some first-year X-Men to keep an eye on, including defensive lineman JJ Heaton (Prince Rupert, BC) of the 2022 Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) champion Okanagan Sun.

"He is big and strong," the X head coach said, noting his skills and ability to move.

DB Logan Ritchie and OLB-RB Owen Watrych, who will be joining his brother Tristan on the X-Men, are highly-touted recruits.

There are also some new ingredients with south of the border connections, including Antonio Corsi (Ottawa, ON), who started his collegiate career at tight-end with the NCAA's Maine Black Bears, while Jahme Dawson (Sahuarita, Arizona) is receiver-returner with blazing speed, who Waterman noted is steadily making the adjustment to the Canadian game.

Kicker Tyson Heather (Airdrie, AB), defensive tackle Tobi Sokunbi (Winnipeg, MB) and offensive tackle Miguel Leano (Winnipeg, MB) are expected to bring depth to their respective units.

There is a newcomer, of sorts, on the sideline. John Stevens, who coached the X-Men to the AUS title and Vanier Cup game appearance in 1996, will be providing his expertise working with the offensive line.

'Hallmark of the AUS'

Waterman expects it to be another "highly competitive" season in the five-team conference.

Even though the White and Blue have posted consecutive unbeaten campaigns, he reminded that they had many "close, hard-fought games," ones in which the team was "fortunate to close them out."

He described parity as the "hallmark of the AUS."

"Our league is really good," Waterman added.

Super support

One of the keys to success over the past several seasons for the X-Men – the program has captured five out of the past seven Loney Bowl games – has been fan support, which comes from the STFX and broader Antigonish communities, along with alumni.

"Their passion is second to none," he offered of White and Blue supporters.

He added, "It definitely drives our players," noting the example of the turnout for the 2022 Uteck Bowl at StFX Stadium.

"It is what makes StFX so special," Waterman said.

He added, "We certainly appreciate all of the support." 

X-Men tackle cancer

Along with their quest for an AUS three-peat and another crack at making the Vanier Cup, the X-Men will continue their tradition of giving back to the community.

Earlier this month, the program launched the X-Men Football Tackles Cancer initiative, in support of the Leukemia Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC) by raising money and awareness for those affected by blood cancers, including second-year X-Men receiver Sam Taylor, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma just a few weeks before his first STFX training camp in 2022.

Through the X-Men social channels and other avenues, the STFX football program hopes to help Taylor reach his goal of raising $5,000.

To learn more about X-Men Football Tackles Cancer or to donate directly to LLSC, visit www.goxgo.ca/xmentacklecancer

Opening day

The X-Men will kick-off the 2023 AUS regular season on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 3 p.m. ADT, when they host the Bishop's Gaiters at STFX Stadium.