“Tomorrow and Friday will be days off,” Dalhousie University Tigers football coach Mark Haggett’s voice echoed across Wickwire Field.
A roar of approval from his players rippled through the chilly air in response.
The football team was wrapping up their sixth straight day of training camp. This final session of the near week-long run wrapped up around 11 p.m., with the surrounding campus dead-quiet. Most students have yet to move into residences.
Eighty-five players reported to camp on day one, Aug. 27. The coaches are tasked with trimming that roster down to between 50 and 60 students before the season opener on Sept. 18 against the University of New Brunswick-Saint John Seawolves. The players have worked tirelessly over six days to catch the coaching staff’s attention.
This break is well deserved. They’re exhausted, yet their chant was alive with energy.
Itching to get back
That energy has likely built up over the nearly two years since the team last played, a semifinal loss to the Holland College Hurricanes on Oct. 26, 2019.
We haven’t heard much from the team since then, until they began revealing most of their new class of recruits on the teams’ Facebook page in the spring.
Fourth-year student and quarterback Chris Duplisea said he missed being out on the field with his squad. Having spent most of the off-year training independently, it means a lot for the 2019 Atlantic Football League (AFL) offensive player of the year to be back out again.
“The part I missed most was being out playing with the guys I’ve been playing with over the past few years and having fun out on the field. Especially being out and hanging with my friends while playing football,” Duplisea said. The team chose to forgo any training together in 2020, citing the large number of players on football teams.
Now that they’ve returned and are in larger numbers, the level of competitiveness touches the black sky above Wickwire Field. As the coaches debate how to shape the roster for game one, Haggett said this type of competition, between players in training camp for roster spots, is an advantage Dal has to set itself apart from other teams.
“You want your highest level of competition to be internal,” he said. “You’d want your second team to play a [league] game for you and win it. I think the competition we have internally here is going to pay off.”
Dal’s new dynamic duo
The 2019 semi-final loss to Holland ended Dal’s bid for back-to-back championships. In 2018, they beat the Hurricanes in the final. Holland would fall in the 2019 Moosehead Cup final to the University of New Brunswick-Fredericton Red Bombers.
The Red Bombers took the title convincingly to cap off an undefeated season, led by AFL MVP Dylan Waugh –– now a Dal Tiger.
The running back represents Dal’s most intriguing off-season addition. Waugh joined the Tigers after enrolling in Dal’s master of science program for occupational therapy following his UNB graduation.
“I have two more years of eligibility and school. I’m going to go for it and play while I can,” Waugh said, excited to jump back into the competition he missed out on last year. “[When you’re] able to go out there on the field and give it your all, there are not many other opportunities in life where you can do that.”
Waugh is not only looking forward to being back in a football program but to be joining forces with Duplisea behind the offensive line – perhaps the scariest duo in the league. Both league all-stars and award winners have spoken frequently through camp so far.
“I’m really excited about it. Chris is a really good player and a really good guy,” Waugh said. “It will definitely be a bit different of a dynamic because Chris is such a good passer and he can run. I think it will open stuff up for me as well. We can really help each other that way.”
“He’s a great addition to the team,” Duplisea said about Waugh. “As everyone saw in previous seasons, he’s a very, very talented running back. He adds that extra piece into our offence. He’s a huge addition and a very good guy.”
The ‘buy-in’ factor
With Duplisea and Waugh expected to be among the leaders on the squad this year, Haggett said there’s something about this year’s team that will make this season in particular exciting and successful.
“This is the best group of young men we’ve had out here for attitude and buy-in. After six days of camp, the buy-in of this team is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Haggett, who’s been on the coaching staff since 2014. “Compared to 2019, we have a lot more character around and along with our [player] numbers, it raises the competition.”
Duplisea has seen the same thing from his team.
“We have a lot of numbers out there, but the biggest change I’ve noticed is the attitude,” he said. “Everyone has a good attitude and they want to be out there. Practice is competitive.”
The attitude is obvious watching a training session. The cheers erupting after any play is finished during practice, big or small, shows the team is soaking in every minute they have back on the field.
“The guys have missed being around the team as a whole and having that family atmosphere,” Haggett said. “That’s what was taken away from them the most. It wasn’t the games themselves, but these moments in practice.”