The date is November 12 2011 and it’s a brisk autumn day like many before it, but it was this day that had the city of London abuzz. Having finished in the top spot in the regular season and breezing through the playoffs, the Western Mustangs football team had the privilege of hosting the Yates, and the Mustangs were certainly feeling the pressure to perform. Halfway through the third quarter, it was the Mustangs’ time to strike. With the score stagnant at 10-3, the McMaster Marauders offence set up in the shadows of their own goalposts and the Mustangs had a chance to put up some points up, starting with a defensive stop.
Marauders quarterback Kyle Quinlan sat in the shotgun as he barked out commands to his troops. With a lift of his foot, his receivers went into motion and the rest was a blur for Mustangs’ fans and players alike.
With a blown coverage in the Mustangs defensive backfield, Marauders star receiver Michael DiCroce was able to split the safeties, and after securing the catch, he went untouched into the end zone to begin the onslaught for the Marauders.
As the final whistle blew to signify the end of the game, the Marauders emerged victorious in overwhelming fashion by a score of 41-19. Though the DiCroce touchdown was not the only mistake for the Mustangs on that faithful Saturday, it was the turning point.
With that play emblazoned in the minds of Mustangs fans, it might be beneficial to stop and think what may have gone wrong on the play. It could have been a bad defensive call. It could have been a mismatch in athleticism. It could have been any number of things, but has anyone ever considered that final exams were just around the corner?
The role of a student athlete has two sides, one as an athlete—in which practice is paramount to reaching team and personal goals— while the other side is of a student. The difficulties of a student athlete are often understated, and the top of that list of difficulties is balance.
“The obvious difficulties would be the time we commit to our sport. I don’t think a lot of the student population realizes the amount of time that we put into what we do. I know how much time I put in each week all year,” Scott Leitch, Mustangs track athlete, said.
Striking a balance between school and athletics can be the difference between getting a high grade and a gold medal, or sitting on the sidelines. With success as students being paramount to success on the field, Mustangs athletics puts a premium on developing and nurturing good athletes that are also successful, responsible students.
Providing two programs in which Mustangs athletics monitor and aid student success on and off the field, they are able to provide the proper tools and infrastructure for positive results. Through their two programs—one of which is a mandatory study hall session, the other is a learning skills seminar—the Mustangs are able to provide athletes with the requisite skills to succeed, as well as holding them accountable for their study time.
“The study hall is run by student mentors who are masters of coaching students in kinesiology. We are the only school in Ontario that has mentors who are masters students,” Bonnie Cooper, varsity sports coordinator, said.
Leitch is an example of an athlete that is able to properly balance both school and work. Though Leitch is a cool customer in both the classroom and the starting blocks, he does admit to some difficulties, even for the most seasoned veterans.
“I find school and athletics fit pretty well together and I think most other athletes would say the same,” Leitch said. “There have been times when assignments and exams pile up and it affected practice, but I would say that happens to anyone, not just athletes.”
It is not only the responsibility of Mustangs athletics to take care of the student athletes. With the strongest connection to the team, coaches are often tasked with gauging the pulse of each team member.
Wrestling coach Ray Takahashi knows the value of balance. As both a mentor and a coach to many athletes, he understands the necessary balance. Takahashi himself won four CIS titles in his days as a Mustangs athlete.
Now as the father and coach of one of Western’s most successful athletes, Steven Takahashi, Ray has the unique responsibility of being on both sides of the ledger.
“It is all about priorities. It is about putting your school and your sport at the top,” Takahashi said.
With around 25 per cent of the roughly 900 Mustangs student athletes qualifying for the OUA’s academic achievement award, the well-known success on the field does not just stay between the lines.
While it was the Mustangs who ended up on the losing side of the Yates Cup, classes were still held the following Monday. Nobody lost their scholarships, or blew their opportunity of suiting up at the next level. With only so much time to split between textbooks and playbooks, sometimes one or the other may suffer. But with proper balance, and a good infrastructure, Mustangs athletics provided the necessary tools for success on and off the field.