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Waterloo Warriors receiver Gordon Lam (2) celebrates a touchdown against the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, Sept. 15, 2018.HO/The Canadian Press

They took back their city last weekend. Now, quarterback Tre Ford and the upstart Waterloo Warriors have set their sights on taking down the defending national champions.

Ford’s 88-yard TD pass to Tyler Ternowski with under three minutes remaining earned Waterloo (3-1) a stunning 34-32 victory Saturday over the Laurier Golden Hawks (2-1), a perennial powerhouse. It was the Warriors’ first win over their cross-town rival since 2002.

On Saturday, Waterloo hosts the Western Mustangs (3-0), looking for their first win over the London, Ont., school since 2001. The reigning Vanier Cup champions come in riding a 15-game win streak.

“They’ve got a good résumé, they’re a good team,” said Ford, a native of Niagara Falls, Ont., who was Canadian university football’s top rookie last year. “But, honestly, I think we’re better.

“As long as we go out there and execute and play, I think we’re going to win. I don’t think they’re going to beat us. I think the only way they win is if we beat ourselves. I think we have a shot to win the whole thing this year.”

Strong words, indeed, considering the backgrounds of the two programs. While Western has long dominated Ontario University Athletics (OUA), some wondered whether Waterloo football could survive just eight years ago.

In 2010, the university suspended the program for a year after nine players tested positive for steroids in Canadian university sports’ biggest doping scandal. Remaining Warriors players were allowed to transfer to other schools.

So when football returned to Waterloo in 2011, it literally started over – and the results weren’t pretty. The Warriors were 4-28 before Chris Bertoia was hired to run the program in December, 2014.

Bertoia was a four-year starter at tackle for Waterloo and played in four straight Yates Cups, winning Ontario titles in 1997 and 1999. He went on to coach at both Western and St. Francis Xavier before returning to his alma mater.

However, it was a slow rebuild as Waterloo went 0-16 over Bertoia’s first two seasons. The Warriors opened the 2017 campaign emphatically with four straight wins but finished 4-4 to miss the OUA playoffs.

Still, Bertoia was named the OUA’s top coach and he’s not surprised by Waterloo’s resurgence this year.

“I predicted it,” he said with a chuckle. “I did a power-point presentation during my interview process. ... I basically broke down the first five years of being the leader of the program and last week one of the things came to fruition. I said we’d beat Laurier at Laurier in my fourth season.

“You have to set lofty goals, but you also have to set attainable goals and some of those goals can’t be reached without the support of the administration above me ... because the first couple of years were very, very difficult for everyone involved.”

Bertoia said the steroid scandal was well in the rear-view mirror when he returned to Waterloo.

“Obviously as an alumnus of this university, that was a black eye on our football program and university.” he said. “When I was hired by [athletic director] Roly Webster, who came in six months before me, we both agreed we weren’t going to really talk about it.

“Not to brush it under the carpet, but to just move on. If we’re going to do things right here and turn this football program and athletic department around, we’re not going to dwell on those things. I’ll be bluntly honest, I didn’t think about it four years ago and still don’t. The only thing I think about is being pro-active with our student-athletes in their education of PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] and that kind of stuff so it never happens again.”

A win Saturday would further bury that dark memory.

“Obviously, last weekend’s victory was very, very important for us,” Bertoia said. “That’s the step that needed to be taken in order to get to this next step, which is the power that is Western.

“They’re the defending national champion, they’re the most consistent, winning program in our conference. They carry many things with them – tradition, history. It would be massive for us to be victorious Saturday.”

But Bertoia doesn’t feel Waterloo’s season hinges entirely on Saturday’s game.

“We have to, at minimum, get two more wins to get into the playoffs,” he said. “The ultimate goal this year is playoffs or bust.

“And that attitude came from the players, not me.”

However, Ternowski, a six-foot, 180-pound economics student from Hamilton, said the goal has been amended.

“It’s Yates Cup or bust,” said Ternowski, who’s caught eight of Ford’s U Sports-high 15 TD passes this season.

Waterloo’s resurgence is sweet for Ternowski and linebacker Kurtis Gray, Both are third-year players who endured a winless first season as Warriors.

“Everyone stayed the course, everyone trusted the process,” said Ternowski. “It starts with the coaching staff.

“Having [Bertoia] here for the past four years has been really nice. His coming from Western, a championship program, and having been on Yates Cup teams are huge factors.”

Gray, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound arts and business student from Waterloo, agrees.

“Since Bert got here, he’s had the mindset that we’re here to change this thing,” Gray said. “We’re here to bring this program right up to the top.

“Absolutely a visionary leader and definitely someone I follow and respect and will work my tail off to play for.”

Both Ternowski and Gray say a winning program has changed the perception of football on campus.

“Going from 0-8 my first year to 4-4 and now 3-1, you can see the changes around the school,” Ternowski said. “Everyone looks at you differently.

“I remember the Black and Gold game, the huge homecoming game, used to be a rugby game whereas everywhere else it’s a football game. That [win over Laurier] was program-changing. For the alumni there, they were in the end zone with us after and they wanted it as much as we did.”

Recruiting is a cornerstone of any successful university athletic program. But Bertoia’s pitch to prospects isn’t all about football.

“We’re selling academics,” he said. “You must have the confidence of believing in what you’re doing because ultimately recruiting is sales and we sell our academics.

“Waterloo is renowned for its co-op program and that’s been a competitive advantage for us.”

Bertoia also presented potential players with the allure of helping build a program.

“There’s no wrong choice,” he said. “The easy choice is go to a success[ful program] but the difficult choice is to come to the program that’s the notorious loser and take the challenge of being the guys who turned it around.

“If you look at our locker room, we’ve recruited many athletes from [top] high-school programs. You’ll get the blue-chip guys, but you’ll also get four others who aren’t necessarily blue-chip players but know what it takes to be successful and don’t accept mediocrity. That’s been part of our formula, to recruit winners, guys who’re qualified academically and want a great degree and are used to winning. That changes your whole mentality in the locker room.”

Unfortunately for OUA rivals, Waterloo’s roster is young. Bertoia said 35 of the 47 players who dressed against Laurier were in their third year or less. Players have five years of eligibility.

However in Bertoia’s mind, the key to success remains the same.

“The old adage that nothing replaces hard work is something I believe in,” he said. “We’ve tried to outwork our opponents in all regards and it’s arguable whether we have, but we’ve definitely worked our tails off to get to this point.

“My whole thing is positivity always crushes negativity. That’s how I live my life and if I’m tasked with leading this football program, that’s the attitude our team will take. We’re going to be positive and have fun because at the end of the day we’re just trying to get first downs and touchdowns and our defence is trying to stop teams from doing the same. This ain’t war, nobody is dying out here. It’s a game and these are young men that this will have an impact on for the rest of their lives. We’re extremely excited to be where we’re at, but we’re definitely not satisfied and we’re excited for what the future holds.”

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