WATERLOO, ON – Two schools.
Two football programs.
That’s what separates – and conjoins – the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks and the Waterloo Warriors.
On Saturday, they will come together in combat at University Stadium, home of the Laurier Golden Hawks, for the annual football matchup that pits the two rival schools against one another on the gridiron for the right to claim Waterloo Region football supremacy. This year is even more special than normal for the schools (and in way, way too many other ways to count), as Saturday’s game will be the first of not just one but two Battles of Waterloo in 2021. (The second will be played at Warrior Field October 30.)
The key word there is ‘Battle.’ For a long time, this game was everything but that. From 2003-2017, the Golden Hawks won 14 straight Battles, most of them handily. During much of that time, Laurier was in the midst of a stretch where they were a top team in the province. Conversely, Waterloo was a program in turmoil, and at the peak of their free fall, were embroidered in a doping scandal that resulted in the suspension of the program in 2010.
“When things are one-sided as they’ve been in the past it’s hard to be a rivalry, but it is now,” said Warriors head coach Chris Bertoia.
The trajectory of the rivalry shifted in 2018 when the Warriors – just in the infantile stages of rebuilding a program that, at the beginning of 2017, had come off two consecutive 0-8 seasons – went into Laurier and stunned the Golden Hawks, 34-32. That win officially put stud quarterback Tre Ford and the Warriors back on the OUA football map.
“When [I] first came into the program [in 2016] it really wasn’t a battle,” said senior Warriors running back Brandon Metz. “We had a young team trying to help out the older guys succeed in this game. Over the years we’ve gotten better as a football team and the Battle of Waterloo has gotten a lot more competitive. I’m excited to see how this year changes with a more veteran group.”
While winning is always good, especially against your arch rival, the Golden Hawks are happy to have this game back to being a true rivalry, too.
“The passion in the game and between the two teams has always been there but the rivalry has shifted for the better as when I first got to Laurier a lot of their premier players were new & just starting out like myself,” said sixth-year Golden Hawks defensive back Christian Hutter-Coppin, “but now they have grown as players and progressed quite significantly and been apart of the program and in the league in order to help build themselves it into the well-respected team they are now.”
The last two years have featured a pair of outstanding games between the Warriors and Golden Hawks, their stadiums separated by less than four kilometres. This has given everyone involved in the region’s football landscape what they’ve been yearning for – a game that will be tight, hotly-contested and actually mean something.
“Having two competitive football programs back in the city absolutely raising the profile of the game and the intensity of the rivalry,” said Bertoia, “as can been shown in our last two games in 2018 and 2019 that were last drive to win type games.”
The 2019 game Bertoia speaks of was an all-time classic, Laurier getting the victory in triple overtime on a touchdown pass from Connor Carusello to now-graduate Brentyn Hall. That epic tilt raised the bar of the rivalry even higher, and Michael Faulds’ Golden Hawks know that Waterloo was officially back.
“Since Coach Bertoia’s arrival we have seen constant improvement with the Waterloo football program, said Faulds. “They have recruited well and now have several All-Star calibre players led by Tre & Tyrell Ford. We know every time we play that it is going to be a very tough game. In 2018 it was a close game and Waterloo got the best of us and then in 2019 it took three overtimes for the game to be decided. We believe this year’s two match-ups will be no different.”
Both head honchos believe the rivalry being back – in the true sense of the word – is a great thing for the city and region.
“I think that the notoriety of the game is coming back as the competitiveness and rivalry grows,” Bertoia said. “I think within the athletic community the rivalry is very important and is continuing to grow in the community. These two games this year make it a unique regular season, both games will have a major impact on how the season plays out towards the playoffs.”
“This rivalry is great for both universities and the greater community,” Faulds added. “Almost everyone in the Kitchener-Waterloo area is a grad from either Laurier or Waterloo and wear the school colours proudly. There are some other cities that have two OUA football teams like York & Toronto or Carleton & Ottawa, but the fact that we are not only in the same city, but share the same street (University Ave) is incredible.”
And the region is expected to show up (within the confines of COVID-19 restrictions, of course). They always do, but with the Battle of Waterloo finally a battle again, the ambiance will undoubtedly be electric.
“The Battle of Waterloo atmosphere has always been a lot different than regular games,” said Metz. “When you play at Laurier you never wanna hear those fireworks go off. When we’re at home the fans are normally a lot more loud and engaged during the game. The games have become more competitive during the years that I’ve been here and it’s going to be a wild game this Saturday.”
Bertoia is no stranger to that atmosphere. Now in his 7th season at the helm of the Warriors, he also played in the rivalry, including in 1999 on the province’s biggest stage. He and the Warriors downed the Golden Hawks, at University Stadium, 32-20, in that year’s Yates Cup. That game is one the London native will never forget
“[There were] 10,000 fans jammed into the stadium, [some sitting] in tree’s,” he recalled. “It was an unreal scene, the stadium divided in two, half black & gold, half in purple & gold.”
He also has a favourite memory as a coach, and it’s not surprising where it comes from.
“It would be the 2018 game at Laurier, a smoking hot day, an amazing back and forth game, we had our Alumni in the one end-zone in tents, a great battle,” Bertoia said. “Both games (the 2018 game and the ’99 Yates) were great battles, a true sense of [the] rivalry, and the common denominator for me was that we won, 32-20 in 1999 to win the Yates Cup, and 34-32 in 2018 to win the Battle of Waterloo for the first time since 2003.”
While playing and coaching do have their similarities, there are many differences as well. Bertoia relishes his time in both roles as a part of this perenial grudge match, and he’s glad the grudge is back.
“There is always excitement, nerves, anxiousness involved with both. As a coach now I want to help put our players in positions to have the same success I was able to have as a player against Laurier,” said Bertoia. “As a player, you worried about your job, trusted that your teammates were going to theirs and you were able to hit people and have fun. I try to have as much fun as I can coaching but I’m not allowed to hit anybody anymore. As a player it was always the biggest game of the year because both teams were strong. Up until the last few years it was as much of a rivalry, but now it’s the biggest game of the year again.”
Faulds, who has been the head coach at Laurier since 2013, said the 2019 game sticks out for him as his fondest Battle of Waterloo memory.
“We jumped up on top and had a decent 26-12 lead, only to see that lead disappear by several incredible Tre Ford plays,” said Faulds. “Finally in the third overtime QB Connor Carusello found WR Brentyn Hall in the back of the endz one to finish the game.”
Ford, who is arguably the biggest reason why this rivalry is back where it was two decades ago, is preparing to play in what will likely be his last Battle of Waterloo. It’s one he inevitably circles on his calendar when the schedule is released.
“Your pride is on the line in this game because it’s involving our neighbours,” said the 4th-year Waterloo pivot, whose twin brother Tyrell is a lockdown corner for the Warriors. “I practice with some of the Laurier players regularly, so you always want to have a win for bragging rights. Nonetheless, it’s always a close game so the battle of Waterloo is always a game I look forward to.”
“There’s a lot of bragging rights that goes into this game,” said Golden Hawks fifth-year eligible receiver Ente Eguavoen, “and although we are friends and buddies off the field, for us to come out victorious in the first battle would be great but we don’t want to just win one of the battles, we want to win the war and that is what we intend to do starting Saturday.”
As Ford and Eguavoen point out, these teams are obviously heated, heated rivals – more so now than has been the case in nearly two decades – and, as Metz said, that will be illustrated on Saturday. But they are also friends away from the game. Many played together in high school, in summer football, or grew up in the same hometown.
“I’m always happy to see the growth of guys I’ve competed against for years, guys such as Dion (Pellerin), Kurtis (Gray) and Tyler (Ternowski) who are now in the CFL and guys like Tre Ford, Jordan Travis & Michael Reid who have become great players on their team and in the conference,” said Hutter-Coppin. “Seeing these guys grow as players on the field, especially the guys who have taken the next step to the CFL has been a great motivation factor over the past couple years.”
It’s clear that this game is more to most guys than ‘just another game.’ There is an aura, a spectacle, to this game that most programs in the country don’t get to experience.
“In my eyes what makes the Battle of Waterloo so special is that we are literally walking distance from each other,” said Hawks running back Kavantye Bailey, filling the shoes left by Laurier legend Levondre Gordon. “With us having to share such a small city, we’re bound to see each other around outside of football as well so this game is for bragging rights as well. From a Laurier perspective though we have a long history of being victorious in these games and we would like to keep that tradition going especially for the alumni that came before us.”
“This game always has a little extra emphasis for me, our coaches, players and alumni,” Bertoia said. “Our program took a lot of beating between 2003-2018, so. there Is always just a little more motivation against Laurier.”
For veteran Warriors linebacker Devon Hinsperger (one of three brothers – all linebackers – on the Waterloo roster), there is a lot more than pride on the line in the Battle of Waterloo. After sustaining two severe knee injuries over his time as a Warrior, he is back and healthy for one final kick at the can (the can being the Golden Hawks), and he couldn’t be happier.
“I am extremely excited for this year’s game. It’s always a crazy environment and an opportunity to test ourselves against our rival. The game always lives up to the hype and tests the physicality and mental toughness of both teams. I’m always thrilled for another opportunity to play Laurier, and because this may be my last season, it means that much more.”
The 2021 season has been trimmed down to six games as opposed to the customary eight. That means every game holds extra significance than in a regular. OUA campaign. That is also the case for these games, with Battles of Waterloo make up a third of the Warriors’ and Golden Hawks schedules. The extra game carries all the more meaning not just in the standings, but the trenches.
“With our season being shortened already there’s already so much on the line with every game that we will play,” said Bailey. “As for what it means for the rivalry, I just think it gives each team another chance to prove who is better. Not only that but these games will be some of the most intense games played in the regular season across the country just on the fact that we are right down the road from each other.”
Being right down the road from each another has many positives off the field, too. The two programs are able to come together to partake in community initiatives with an aim of making Waterloo Region a great place to live. The Warriors and Golden Hawks did just that last fall during the pandemic-cancelled season to donate blood through Canadian Blood Services.
“Coach Bertoia and I both agree we have to do things in the community, so we took part in the blood battle and the two Universities are doing that again this year,” Faulds explained. “We also do fun things, like in 2019 when we had an eating competition at a local restaurant. We have also discussed wanting to hold a joint coaches clinic in the spring when this pandemic is a little bit further behind us. Anything we can do to bring this football community together we are all for.”
“Coach Faulds and my relationship extend back to before our days in the Waterloo Region together,” elaborated Bertoia. “Although we’re competitors on the field and in everything football, we both believe that we’re the football ambassadors for this region and we’re happy to collaborate on initiatives that benefit a good cause, raise the profile of our programs in a positive light.
That proximity does present some hurdles for both Laurier and Waterloo. Perhaps the biggest of those is the ability to recruit. Most teams have to sell their academics, their football programs and their communities. These schools are no different, except in that they must do all three while competing with another school just down the road.
“We certainly compete with Laurier for recruits in our region and abroad,” Bertoia admitted. “We don’t speak about other universities, we only speak about all the strengths of ours academically, athletically and facility wise. Both schools have lots to offer academically and athletically. It’s all about relationships and right fit. We place a high importance on landing the best recruits in the Waterloo region as can be seen on our roster make-up.”
The one thing that makes it easier is the different academic options both institutions provide.
“The universities themselves are so different that recruits easily can separate the two and decide what they are looking for in a post secondary institution,” Faulds said. “Waterloo is very large with over 40,000 students and we (Laurier) are less than half that size. There is also a difference in flagship academic programs: Waterloo is known for Computer Science and Engineering and Laurier for business.”
For many of the players on the current incarnations of the Warriors and Golden Hawks, they have been around the Laurier-Waterloo rivalry for years. They have seen the shape of the Battle of Waterloo game (or, in the case of 2021, games) transform from the one game you know you’ll play when the schedule comes out into something more: a true collision course between two teams who share a common bond of football and community, and two teams competing for university football’s ultimate prize.
“[The Battle of Waterloo] has played a big role in my university career just because the challenge has gotten tougher each and every year,” said Eguavoen, “but that’s what makes it exciting. Every game [against] Waterloo has gone down to the wire and those are the games we dream of growing up and playing this game.”
There are some, however, getting their first taste of the yearly fiesta. One of those is Hinsperger’s brother, James. Devon says the freshman is more than ready for what he’ll face Saturday.
“There isn’t too much to say to him. He’s been around our team, bought in to our principals and understands how important this game is,” the eldest Hinsperger said. “He’s well prepared and knows it will be a physical game but there’s nothing more James, Jack (a sophomore), or I would like [than to beat Laurier]. Laurier is a terrific team, coached by an extremely knowledgeable staff so every inch is going to be a battle but we’re looking forward to it.”
Hutter-Coppin is another one of those wily veterans, preparing to play in his 5th Battle of Waterloo. His advice to a rookie who has yet to experience the intensity of this rivalry: stay disciplined.
“Advice I would give to a young player coming into this rivalry is short and simple,” he said. Do not let the emotion and antics outside of football affect your preparation for the game or execution within the game.”
Black and Gold.
Purple and Gold.
For the right to University Ave. ascendancy.