CIS Corner: Carleton Ravens reboot nears kickoff; ‘the amount we’ll have grown will be astronomical’

55 Yard Line

The spin-off of being the new kids is being able to speak of going from ground up to the Vanier Cup, without putting observers on the injured list with pulled credulity.

That was the selling point when Carleton Ravens coach Steve Sumurah and his staff, five of whom were previously with new Ontario University Athletics rivals Ottawa and Queen's, started wooing recruits to be play for a team which is starting from square one. Since momentum to revive football at the Ottawa university gained critical mass in the late aughties, there's been a do-it-up-big blueprint. Get alumni sufficiently excited to vote with their chequebooks for the team's return and so the program can run on a model similar to Canadian university game's colossus, the Laval Rouge et Or. Hire a big-time coach and savvy recruiter in Sumarah. Get Nike to design the uniforms ("two helmets, four uniforms," Sumarah clarifies) in adherence of the look-good, play-good principle. Raid two nearby OUA schools for coaching know-how: offensive coordinator Jean-Phillippe Asselin was previously Ottawa's head coach, while defensive coordinator Ryan Bechmanis was with Queen's.

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"Really, we're selling concepts," Sumurah says. "Guys have bought in. To see the players and parents coming into the locker room saying, 'Wow, it's now real' really helped... They see the future as much as the present."

As far as the latter goes, Carleton is hitting the ground running with a roster of an estimated average age of 18½ years old in a level of football where teams rely on fifth-year seniors who are typically 23 or 24. The essence boils down to whether their heralded recruiting class, many of whom will have to start right away, can get through the season without their confidence intact.

Carleton has an acclaimed recruiting class that includes Saint Mary's transfer quarterback Jesse Mills and wide receiver Nate Behar, but they'll be thrown into the fray right away. It's like night and day to the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Mills, who never lost a game in high school at Halifax's Citadel and was 4-1 as Saint Mary's starter in 2011.

"This first year, it's all about not getting too negative, it's going to be rough," says Mills, whose adjustment from the Maritimes to Ontario was eased by a season with the Ottawa Sooners juniors last fall (Sumarah even had him over for Thanksgiving).

"There's going to be a few growing pains. That's all part of the process. It has to get worse before it gets better.

Learning that and living it could go a long way. Mighty Laval, for instance, went 1-7 in its first season in 1996 and won the Vanier Cup in its fourth year. Montreal and Sherbrooke were outscored, respectively, 359-62 and 491-10 during their winless yearling seasons in 2002 and '03 before getting up to speed.

"When stuff starts going for real, they're going to be eyes wide open," says offensive lineman Matt Lapointe, 22, a masters student in international affairs whose two seasons of dressing at Queen's make him the Ravens' elder statesman. "It's going to be my job to make sure everyone's okay and everyone calms down. Football's supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be a math quiz, it's not supposed to be a chemistry test. Just breathe and go play by play.

"The fact we have all this at our disposal right now, the funding from alumni, the new locker room, everything is brand-new," adds Lapointe. "It's definitely attractive for new recruits and even young ones like myself."

And what if that turns out to be all worth it by 2016 or '17? Behar didn't want to leave that question unanswered, so he picked Carleton over his hometown's storied Western Mustangs.

"It's different, It's so different, that made it so attractive," Behar says. "Staying at home in London [to play for Western], you know what you're going to get. By no means it is a bad thing — an up-and-coming quarterback [sophomore Will Finch], a strong coaching staff, strong supporting cast. It's Western football. But coming here, it was sort of take the high road, the road less travelled, so that you didn't regret it. For me, if I had stayed and then four years down the road you see Carleton winning the Vanier — which we all hope is going to happen — then I would imagine how fun that has been for that team that grew together. The opportunity was just too awesome and unique."

Behar and a few of his teammates will probably revisit passing on playing for a traditional contender on Sept. 2, when the Ravens play their regular-season opener against Western.

"I remember seeing the schedule come out about a month after I committed and thinking, 'this has to be some sick joke,' " Behar says. " 'The OUA gods are playing some tricks right now, to go home to Western for the first game.' But I'm excited for the opportunity ... we all get to learn what that the top notch of OUA football is like.

"It doesn't matter what happens today as long as tomorrow, we're better," Behar adds. "If that means taking it on the chin, you got to be okay with it. You have to be able take a few hits. As long as we keep that mentality — which is tough for young guys. But I know our coaches are going to do a good job and drill that into our heads. It's about where you're going to be. Coach JP was saying earlier that he's excited for April 2014 when we'll be just about to leave for the summer and the amount we'll have grown will be astronomical. As long as we do that, the long afternoons [this season] will be bearable."

Mills has competition at quarterback from Nick Gorgichuk, an Ottawa native who was the MVP in the Quebec Junior Football League. There is good reason to be bullish about Mills. He was consensus top recruit nationally coming out of high school and his support system of offensive coaches, Sumarah, Asselin and Josh Sacobie, have each worked with Hec Crighton Trophy-winning QBs. His challenge over time will be becoming the nerve centre for a team trying to create its identity.

"I'm ready to take on the responsibility," Mills says. "At Saint Mary's, we had a veteran team but I felt ready for the role.

"It's about all growing together, when something goes wrong no one's fault, we all accept blame and work together. We're a young team, give us time and we'll all grow together."

Sumarah has some related experience with starting from the bottom. In 1998, he followed Blake Nill from St. Francis Xavier to Saint Mary's, which had bottomed out with a single-victory season in '97 and was a program in a bit of turmoil. The Huskies quickly turned it around with a 7-1 season in '99 capped by a loss to Laval in the Vanier Cup, then won back-to-back in 2001-02.

"The one thing that we had was that the year before was a good recruiting class and then we had a good recruiting class," says Sumarah, who also guided SMU to the national final in 2007 after Nill moved to the Calgary Dinos. "Those guys really ended up bonding and gelling together over four to five years. That's the plan we're trying to use here. If we can get a good group of guys, keep them together for 4-5 years, I think the success will be there.

"We have a group of guys who get to form their own culture. And I think that part is the most exciting."

Possibly the only regret Sumarah has ahead of Year 1 is the Ravens' efforts to recruit in the football hotbed of Quebec. Recruiting nationally is probably essential to Carleton's goals, but the name recognition isn't there yet. Relationships with prospective players can also take years to form.

"It's very difficult financially [due to Quebec's lower tuition rates]," Sumarah says. "Those guys have such an advantage. Once we recognized that, we've done a better job of doing some target recruiting. The first question right out of the game, 'this is how much it costs, and are you prepared to leave?' And it's helped. I think we've found guys who are interested in something different."

Whether that adds up to wins in the first season remains to be seen. Carleton's September slate does include contests vs. Waterloo, York and Toronto, whose playoff droughts add up to a combined 33 seasons. The OUA's 'little three' at least have experience in the league, but there isn't the sense of being as part as something as bold as what Carleton's attempting.

"Everywhere else seemed the same," Behar says. "You come in, you compete with the vets, you carry some pads and hope to get on the field. Here, no one's going to carry pads."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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