VANCOUVER - Last November during a Vanier Cup news conference in Vancouver Stefan Ptaszek played the underdog card to excess.
The McMaster Marauders coach refused to touch the Cup and went out of his way to praise his opponent, the Laval Rouge et Or. The move worked as McMaster upset favoured Laval 41-38 in a wild Canadian Interuniversity Sport football championship game at B.C. Place.
But as another Ontario conference regular season begins this weekend, Ptaszek knows he can't play the underdog card anymore.
"I don't know if I'm going to get much sympathy from any of my peers," he said. "It's a new season, and we're not going to sneak up on anybody after the fall that we had, and we recognize that.
"Teams are going to be ready to play us, and teams are going to measure how they are relative to a Vanier Cup champion — and we get that."
The Marauders will be looking to improve on a 7-1 regular-season record in 2011. McMaster has 11 returning starters on offence and eight on defence from the team that gave the Hamilton school its first national crown.
Ptaszek likes his squad's chances of winning again when the Vanier Cup shifts to Toronto. But he refuses to describe his club as a defending champion.
"We're not trying to defend this title," he said. "We're trying to go for a second one, and we're starting from the bottom of this mountain and trying to re-climb it as opposed to defend anything — which I think is the better approach."
The Marauders will be led by fifth-year quarterback Kyle Quinlan, who had what Ptaszek calls a "professional-development opportunity" and "not a tryout" with the Montreal Alouettes this spring.
"We feel he's one of the better players in all of Canadian university football," said Ptaszek. "He needs to be a leader in that lockerroom and not be satisfied with the status quo.
"Watching him work and push to get better is the best thing for my lockerroom to see."
McMaster's entire 2011 offensive line is returning along with a defensive secondary that let the CIS in interceptions in the regular season with 19.
Ptaszek rates perennial powerhouses Western Ontario and Queen's, among others, as key conference rivals.
"Ontario is one of the healthier conferences in Canada," said Ptaszek. "We've had three schools come out of the province and win a Vanier Cup championships in the last seven years. Laurier did it '05, Queen's in 2009 and McMaster in 2011.
"The beauty of this conference is, in any given year, there's four of five schools that can do it."
In Quebec, Laval is trying to rebuild and recover following its heart-breaking loss to McMaster.
"It's been on our mind for the whole winter," said Laval coach Glen Constantin. "Obviously, there's still a clear wound there.
"We've learned from that though. We're better character-wise as a football team."
Laval is seeking a record seventh Vanier Cup title and fourth in five years. The Rouge et Or have launched a youth movement after star running back Sebastien Levesque and quarterback Bruno Prud'homme graduated.
Constantin has just nine returning starters — five on offence and four on defence. He rates Montreal and Sherbrooke as the main roadblocks on the road to Toronto.
"We had been (to the Vanier Cup) seven times," said Constantin. "It's the first one that we had lost. We're looking to bounce back, so (a return this year) would be a great accomplishment, especially with a much younger team."
In the Maritimes, the St. Mary's Huskies are attempting a bounceback of their own after losing the Atlantic conference championship to the Acadia Axemen in 2011 following four straight titles. Coach Perry Marchese takes over the Huskies after Steve Sumarah was ousted in December — despite having guided St. Mary's to four conference titles in six years.
Constantin predicted the controversial move will cause a "big-time" disruption with St. Mary's, which did not hire Marchese until February following an extensive.
"The amount of time that it took to replace Steve Sumarah caused a lot of uncertainty, too, for the kids in choosing a school," said Constantin. "They were very late in recruiting."
Predicting Acadia will prevail again, Constantin said the St. Mary's program has declined since "icon" Blake Nill left for the University of Calgary.
The Dinos, ranked first in the CIS, are on a drive for five straight Canada West conference crowns under Nill.
Third-year quarterback Eric Dzwilewski guides a Calgary offence that includes all-Canadian running back Steven Lumbala and lineman Kirby Fabien, a B.C. 2012 first-round draft choice, who opted to return to the Dinos even though Lions general manager Wally Buono said he virtually would've cracked the CFL team's roster had he signed.
Carson Rockhill, a third-round choice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, further strengthens the offensive line while all-Canadian linebacker Jordan Verdone, another Lions draft prospect, and all-Canadian kicker Johnny Mark also return.
Calgary will be challenged by a UBC squad that was stripped of its second-place finish and 6-2 record after being found to have used an ineligible player. UBC has several veterans back on offence but is looking to prove it can win with a young defence.
"We have some talent here," said UBC coach Shawn Olson. "We'll see how it all comes together.
"But if we play to our potential, we could look pretty good."
Quarterback Billy Greene, the Hec Crighton trophy winner who was bypassed in the CFL draft, will guide the UBC offence in his fifth and final season.
"I'm hoping he's going to build off of last year," said Olson. "Quarterback is one of those positions where the physical side is not as important as the mental side.
"Usually, as you get older, you get better at the mental side."
Greene is in the rare position of having a chance to win consecutive Hec Crighton awards. The English major said he does not care about his stats, but Olson does.
"I would expect him to be better than he was last year," said Olson. "He's big and he's strong and he's got a strong arm.
"He's got a better understanding of the offence. This is his third year in it. So I would expect a higher completion percentage and more efficiency. So that's what we're shooting for."
Olson also expects Saskatchewan to serve as a key rival in the quest for a conference title and eventual Vanier Cup berth. The Huskies will attempt to triumph with new starting quarterback Drew Burko.
Meanwhile, the Regina Rams are expected to be stronger now that No. 1 quarterback Marc Mueller is healthy again after suffering a season-ending injury on the team's first offensive play from scrimmage in 2011. But Manitoba and Alberta, both of which lack a clear starter, are in rebuilding mode.