U of T Varsity Blues football making strides

Andrew Gillis has experienced his fair share of trying times in five years at quarterback for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

In his rookie season, the club went winless for the sixth-straight campaign – the program was drowning, and in desperate need of a life-preserver.

Now in his last year of eligibility, the fifth-year senior is finally seeing his hard work pay off, as the Blues are off to a respectable 2-2 start.

Last year, U of T finished 3-5, its best record in 15 years. And the team’s victory over Ottawa last October was its first versus a nationally-ranked opponent since 1997.

“Since my first year, every season we have gotten better,” said Gillis, Wednesday afternoon before practice at Varsity Stadium. “This is definitely the most confident I have ever been with the team.”

First-year coach Greg Gary is in agreement with his pivot in terms of where the football program stands, knowing how low it has been.

U of T has not won a Yates Cup, Ontario’s top prize, since 1993 – the year they claimed the Vanier Cup, awarded to the national champion.

“I think there was a losing culture that became part of the program,” said Gary, a former player with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “We have made a lot of steps towards taking the program to the next level, where we can be competitive.

“We haven’t shown it every week yet, but I’d say we’re getting closer each time.”

That lack of consistency Gary speaks of reared its unsightly head last week when the Blues were blanked 41-0 by the University of Ottawa.

But this is no longer a club that at one time would have taken that disheartening loss and buried its head in the sand.

Players and coaches speak confidently of a team capable of qualifying for the playoffs, requiring them to place in the conference’s top six positions.

If the team is to meet that lofty goal, it will need to begin with a win Friday, when the Blues host the Queen’s Gaels.

Queen’s and U of T will be doing battle for the 174th time since 1887, and will honour two of the greatest OUA quarterbacks in league history, Toronto’s Dan Feraday (1976-78, 1980-81) and Queen’s pivot Tom Denison (2001-03), in a halftime ceremony.

Following this weekend’s contest, Toronto plays out the 2011 season with games against McMaster (3-1), Western (4-0) and Waterloo (0-4).

If the Blues are going to make a run at the post-season, the defence will need to bounce back from its poor showing last week against Ottawa.

Fourth-year linebacker Wilkerson DeSouza is adamant U of T is capable of righting the ship, and is looking forward to the challenge on Friday.

“We are just going to take it one game at a time, and try to make the playoffs,” said DeSouza, who was recently named OUA defensive player of the week for the period ending Sept. 18. “This is going to be the hardest game of the year.

“Historically, we haven’t had much success against Queen’s, but I feel we’re really well prepared.”

Coach Gary is pleased with the effort of his players, and believes the program’s brightest days are ahead of it.

A new sparkling athletic facility, unveiled in 2007, hasn’t hurt recruiting efforts either, always a challenge for a school with high academic admission standards.

However the season plays out, there is no question the Blues are already leaps and bounds ahead of the teams that went winless between 2002 and 2007.

It’s not only about wins and losses, but attitude and pride.

“We’re still not where we want to be,” said Gillis, who has thrown for 818 yards through four games this season. “Right now I’m pretty optimistic as to where we’re heading, but we still have a lot of work to do.”