When the University of Saskatchewan Huskies travel to Vancouver to tangle with the UBC Thunderbirds in this Saturday’s Canada West semi-final, it will mark their 11th straight trip to the post-season.
To put the current streak in perspective, the last time the Huskies missed the playoffs, the Y2K crisis was still fresh on people’s minds; Roy Romanow was still the premier of Saskatchewan; most people had yet to learn what a “hanging chad” was; and most of this year’s recruits were only eight years old.
This is a remarkable accomplishment that highlights how strong this program has become. Even during their run as the “Team of the 90′s”, they still missed the playoffs three times during that decade.
Now, due to excellent recruiting and development, not to mention the top facilities and community support in the conference, rebuilding seasons don’t result in 2-6 records and last place finishes, but rather in 5-3 finishes and a drop from first to third. In fact, the Huskies have finished above .500 for nine years straight, their last 4-4 season coming in 2002, a year they went to the Vanier Cup.
For Head Coach Brian Towriss, getting to the playoffs is something he expects of his team every year, no matter how much roster turnover they have had. “We certainly don’t expect to miss the playoffs, but we’ve had to work hard this year. We’ve dealt with some changes and injuries, and maybe we’re not as talented this year, as we’re pretty young in some key spots.
“This year the league’s been more competitive than the last few seasons. Other than Calgary, everyone’s been thrown in the mix, which you can see by the standings.”
If one area of the team isn’t as strong, it’s nice to have others with veteran players that can pick up the slack. This is certainly the case on the Huskies, who experienced a lot of turnover and have struggled at times on offence, often having to rely on their defence and special teams to win games.
“We’ve played great defence all year,” agrees Towriss. “Our special teams have been solid all year, especially on our returns. We have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. We just have to continue to improve and be better every week.”
With the amount of turnover the Huskies experienced in the last off season, including unexpectedly losing CIS all-Canadian wide receiver Jade Etienne to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL, finishing 5-3, only one fewer win than in 2010, is quite an accomplishment. The kind of consistency the Huskies have established with their annual trip to the playoffs has been a key feature in recruiting some of the best high school and junior players from across Western Canada.
“One of the things we’ve sold for years is that most years we play two or three more games than some of the other teams in the league,” said Towriss. “The fact that you get a ninth game or tenth game, for sure, because we’ve always had the preseason game, as well, over the course of a career, it’s kind of another season for a kid.”
While it would be easy to recruit players and have success in a league where a player’s academics didn’t matter, the Huskies, along with all the CIS teams, must ensure their players are maintaining their averages and a full course load. Thankfully for the Huskies, they have the advantage of having a major medical/doctoral university behind them and have many more options than a lot of the schools they compete against, an advantage Towriss does not hesitate to promote.
“We have a full, broad-range of programs (at the University of Saskatchewan),” he said. “There aren’t many things we don’t have, other than a couple smaller, specialized programs like journalism. We have something here for just about everybody, and we’ll have the architecture school here in another year or two, and that will also help.”
With the foundation the Huskies have in place, it’s a pretty safe bet the Huskies will extend their playoff streak, and maybe even add a shiny trophy or two in the near future.