Merchant caps off Mustangs football career with MVP campaign under centre for Western

Photo by Western Mustangs
Photo by Western Mustangs

Burlington, Ont. (by David DiCenzo)Chris Merchant has been one of the premier players in Ontario University Athletics the past few seasons. And the talented fifth-year quarterback from Calgary, Alta. is capping his distinguished career at Western University with yet another accolade. Merchant has been named OUA Most Valuable Player, headlining the conference’s 2019 football major award winners.

Most Valuable Player – Chris Merchant, Western Mustangs

Merchant was a constant presence throughout Western’s undefeated regular season, the third consecutive year the Mustangs have accomplished that feat. The Kinesiology major is the very definition of a dual threat with his ability to beat defences both through the air or with his legs. Merchant followed up an impressive 2018 by completing 159 of 232 pass attempts this season (68.5 %) for 2,378 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Merchant was just as dangerous when he called his own number, rushing the ball a career-high 77 times for another 438 yards and six majors.

The Mustangs’ leader hit his stride in his team’s 40-23 win over Queen’s in week 2. Merchant’s arsenal was on full display as he passed for a season-high 355 yards with two touchdowns, while adding another score on the ground. He would close the season with a dominant stretch of play, racking up over 1,000 passing yards and nine total touchdowns in the final three wins of the regular season over Windsor, Waterloo, and Ottawa, respectively. Merchant would finish the year topping all OUA quarterbacks in pass efficiency at 167.7

Statistics aside, one of the most impressive aspects of Merchant’s season was an ability to guide an offence that featured several young players on the offensive line, as well as a changing of the guard in the backfield. The poise and veteran leadership he had amassed in Western’s long postseason runs in recent years were imperative to the team manufacturing yet another undefeated campaign.

Merchant can now add OUA MVP to a list of accomplishments that includes second team OUA all-star status in 2018, the Dalt White Trophy as Yates Cup MVP, and Mitchell Bowl MVP (both in 2018), and winning the Ted Morris Memorial Trophy (2017).

Outstanding Stand-Up Defensive Player – Jack Cassar, Carleton Ravens

Offensive coordinators around the league are well aware of the name Jack Cassar. Any game plan had to account for the versatile Carleton Ravens linebacker, who was a force all over the field in 2019 en route to earning the nod for Outstanding Stand-Up Defensive Player. Cassar, a fourth-year man from Mississauga, Ont., established himself as one of the conference’s best players on the defensive side of the ball with OUA first team all-star honours in 2018, but his overall game reached a new level this year for the Ravens. He began the campaign with a monster effort against Queen’s, registering 10 solo tackles and an assisted tackle in an 18-12 Carleton win. Cassar went on to tally 39 solo tackles throughout the season to go along with 10 of the assisted variety, finishing third in the conference with 6.3 tackles per game.

One of his best assets, however, is a relentless approach that allows him to apply pressure on opposing offences. Cassar accomplished that by chipping in four sacks, as well as seven total tackles for loss amounting to 40 yards. He also recovered a fumble and showed his prowess in coverage by breaking up five passes, which tied him for seventh in the conference in that category.

The evolution into OUA Outstanding Stand-Up Defensive Player isn’t much of a surprise for Cassar. The big, athletic, and vocal linebacker was known for his impressive pedigree before arriving in the nation’s capital, having previously won Team MVP honours on the Mississauga Warriors of the Ontario Varsity Football League. Cassar was also a member of the U-19 Team Canada squad that went to the International Bowl in Arlington, Texas in 2016 and he had a stint with the Canada Prep Raiders.

Lineman of the Year – Cameron Lawson, Queen’s Gaels

One of the true measures of an athlete is the ability to make teammates better. And Queen’s Gaels defensive line standout Cameron Lawson did exactly that along the way to winning the 2019 OUA’s Lineman of the Year award.

The fourth-year Arts & Science major from Caledon, Ont. has made a steady ascent in his OUA career, having been recognized as a Second-Team All-star in each of the two previous seasons. But Lawson emerged as a game-changing force in 2019, leading a ferocious Queen’s defence that ended the year ranked second in sacks and third in tackles. Lawson accounted for 15.5 of the tackles and 3.5 sacks, but perhaps most importantly, enabled players to thrive alongside him. The defensive line’s anchor faced constant double teams, which allowed players like Anthony Federico, Tyler Roy, and Gabriel Boucher to feast on OUA quarterbacks this season. Lawson registered seven tackles for losses and also recovered a fumble.

Moreover, his performances resulted in praise from the league’s coaches, who noted Lawson’s high level of ability and how offensive staffs needed to plan around him.

Norm Marshall Award (Rookie of the Year) – Kojo Odoom, Western Mustangs

It can be a difficult transition for young football players moving up to the OUA level, but Kojo Odoom didn’t take long to show he belonged among the best in the country. The first-year defensive back from Surrey, B.C. came to the defending Yates Cup champion Mustangs from the Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary School program with an all-around game that showcased hard hits, strong coverage ability, and tremendous ball skills. And Odoom introduced himself to the OUA by producing an exceptional first season in which he registered 15 solo tackles and 10 assisted tackles. The DB also led all Western defensive players with four pass breakups.

Odoom was the MVP on his high school team last season and the opportunity to play in big games was one of the main reasons he chose to attend Western. The coveted recruit established himself as a player that embraces the big stage and looks to be a piece that the Mustang defence can build around for years to come.

David “Tuffy” Knight Award (Coach of the Year) – Greg Marshall, Western Mustangs

Longevity is one of the true marks of greatness. Greg Marshall, the man at the helm of the current Western Mustangs dynasty, has been leading teams to championships for several years and after a third consecutive undefeated season in London, the Canadian university football legend earned his seventh OUA Coach of the Year award.

The Guelph, Ont. native and former Mustang player won his first two back in 1999 and 2000 when he patrolled the sidelines for the McMaster Marauders. And since 2010, Marshall has taken home the award more five times, eclipsing former Western head coach Larry Haylor’s previous total of six.

Marshall hasn’t allowed complacency to set in to a team that has stood out among all programs in U SPORTS the past three years. After completing the ultimate double in winning the Yates Cup and the Vanier Cup in 2017, the Mustangs took the OUA banner again in 2018 before finishing the season with another Vanier appearance. Marshall’s team has not missed a beat in 2019. Western kicked the season off with a 32-19 win on the road at Laurier before running the table on the OUA schedule, capped by a 32-22 home win over Ottawa. The always-potent offensive team was dominant once again, leading the conference with 36.3 points per game and finishing third with 468.1 yards per contest. Marshall’s offence can trouble opponents in a variety of ways, evidenced by an OUA-best 9.8 passing yards per attempt, and league-highs in both first downs (223), rushing first downs (99), and third-down conversions (23 of 32 for 72%).

Now in his 13th season in charge of the Mustangs, Marshall has guided the team to six Yates Cup victories.

Russ Jackson Nominee – Jacob Janke, York Lions

Every OUA football players wants to perform well on the field when game day comes around. But for York Lions standout free safety Jacob Janke, the desire to contribute extends beyond the boundaries of the playing surface. The fifth-year Commerce major from Edmonton, Alta. has earned the nod as the OUA’s Russ Jackson nominee by amassing an impressive list of accomplishments on and off the field.

On the field, Janke achieved OUA first team all-star honours thanks to a breakthrough season in which he racked up 34 total tackles, four tackles for losses, two forced fumbles, once sack, one fumble recovery, and three pass breakups. His array of skills caught the eye of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who selected the York man in the fourth round (35th overall) in the 2019 CFL Entry Draft.

Beyond the sidelines, meanwhile, Janke is a true leader for the Lions program. He is the co-founder of Tiny Strides, a non-profit organization that he and three teammates launched to service underprivileged youth in the community. Janke credits football with enabling him to get to where he is and he is passionate about his belief that sport can help children reach their potential. With Tiny Strides, he is ensuring that kids in need will have the same opportunities that he was afforded. The grassroots organization offers financial assistance for registration fees and equipment, in addition to providing a mentorship program where Janke serves as a relatable role model for children.

In the summer of 2019, he spent a week working with almost 200 kids at a Toronto refugee shelter, introducing them to sport-specific programming to help them deal with the upheaval they had experienced. Janke still visits the children and Tiny Strides was able to host 100 of them at York homes games this season. The organization has also put on football clinics with the York Region Lions, a local junior football program, in addition to offering a free football day for children to experience the sport. Janke has done speaking engagements and is constantly working on fundraising projects that enable Tiny Strides to make an impact in the community.

The Lions’ veteran doesn’t allow the massive commitment to football and philanthropy to negatively affect his work in the classroom. Janke is a commerce major specializing in finance, with a 6.67 GPA. He has already completed three summer internships at the Bay Street firm Waypoint Investment Partners, where he has served as a public equity analyst. Janke has continued to work with the company in a part-time capacity throughout the school year, showing the enduring work ethic that is mandatory for any Russ Jackson nominee.

Volunteer Coach of the Year – Joe Sardo, Guelph Gryphons

The Guelph Gryphons have produced several elite linebackers in program history, with some exceptional talents anchoring the defence in the last few seasons. Those recent stars can give thanks to their current position coach Joe Sardo, who just completed his third year on the Gryphon defensive staff.

The Hamilton, Ont. native is a deserving recipient of the 2019 Volunteer Coach of the Year award. Sardo brings a wealth of experience to the program’s linebacker corps, which was shaped during his standout NCAA career at the University of Hawaii. He was drafted in the second round of the 1992 CFL draft and played four years in the league before eventually embarking on a new path in the finance world and as a coach. Sardo spent two years as an assistant with his hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2004 and 2005, as well as serving as McMaster’s defensive coordinator for 10 years. His experience as both a CFL player and coach is an ideal fit for Guelph’s defensive staff.

In his volunteer role, Sardo has been instrumental in establishing a culture that emphasizes work ethic and high expectations. He embodies those ideals himself, not just on the sidelines but also in his successful professional life. Sardo retired from football in 1995 and became an investment advisor. He is now a Vice-President and Portfolio Manager at RBC, where he constantly utilizes his communication skills and teamwork learned from years on the football field. Sardo has earned two of the industry’s highest designations – Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Invest Manager.

Ken Green Officials Award of Merit – Kevin Baird

Earning the final award of the 2019 season is an individual who has also seen his fair share of football over the years. Kevin Baird, this year’s recipient of the Ken Green Officials Award of Merit, has been officiating football as a member of the Lakeshore Football Officials Association since 2003 and has been a key part of the OUA football officials’ panel since 2010. His rule knowledge, no-nonsense approach, and overall feel for the game has allowed Baird to acquire the respect of his peers, players, and coaches throughout the OUA since that time.

Throughout his career, Baird has been involved in several Yates Cup championships, as well as national bowl games, which is a testament to how he continuously works at his craft. This year’s recognized official, who has now added his name to the winners list three times, including now back-to-back honours, has been a mainstay at various levels of football and continues to provide the OUA with a high level of officiating each time he steps on to the field.

The complete list of 2019 football major award winners is as follows:

Most Valuable Player – Chris Merchant, Western

Outstanding Stand-Up Defensive Player – Jack Cassar, Carleton

Lineman of the Year – Cameron Lawson, Queen’s

Norm Marshall Award (Rookie of the Year) – Kojo Odoom, Western

David “Tuffy” Knight Award (Coach of the Year) – Greg Marshall, Western

Russ Jackson Award Nominee – Jacob Janke, York

Volunteer Coach of the Year – Joe Sardo, Guelph

Ken Green Officials Award of Merit – Kevin Baird

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