After staging a huge win over the Marseille Blue Stars in the French Federation of American Football, FFFA, wild card playoffs, the underdog Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône Cougars are now gearing up for another battle when they travel to take on the first place Asniéres sur Seine Molosses with the winner moving on to the championship final.
The Cougars had qualified for the the wild card round in the FFFA after finishing third in the Northern Division. The first foe they had to face on the road was a road game against a championship title contender, the South Division’s second place team, the Marseille Blue Stars. Saint Ouen defeated the Blue Stars 39-27 in an exciting contest and qualified for the semi-finals. Asniéres sur Seine Molosses will not be an easy opponent since the Cougars could not defeat them in the regular season.
Head coach Xavier Mas knows as well that a tough game awaits them. However, this season is special for Mas since he is stepping down as head coach of the Cougars after 20 years. Thus, every game now could be his last with a team he has coached every year except one since 1998 . Nevertheless, he does not care about that. What’s most important is the next game.
American Football International: The Blue Stars are a top team in France. The Cougars managed to beat them in Marseille. How important was this win for your team?
Xavier Mas: You know, going to Marseille was not an easy trip to do. First because of the distance and the fact that the game was scheduled by the FFFA on a long weekend in France and also with the heat that just started couple of days before. I did not know how my guys would be dealing with those factors. The way we were approaching this game was easy. The regular season is over and now it is a new one starting. I think it was easy for me to give motivation to my players as we kept hearing or reading that we had no chance to beat the Blue Stars because they were a rising team and on their way to the National Championship against the Black Panthers. Even people who never watched any of our games were not considering us as the winners of the game, so I have to say that this gave a lot of fuel to our engine. Now it is just a game won, not a championship so we do not get high, we have to keep our focus.
AFI: Were you satisfied with your team’s performance?
X.M.: Of course I was proud to win that game away, but what I really liked during that game was the mental strength the players showed. Usually my team does not match adversity, and there was a moment in the third quarter that could have totally changed the game. We were up by 14 and Burton threw a ball right into my cornerback’s hands that he failed to intercept. Couple of plays later the Blue Stars scored and on the following drive my quarterback has been intercepted and they tied the game at 27. At that moment, they clearly had the momentum and I thought ‘damn my guys will not get up if we do not score on the next drive”. So I decided to put my trust in my big guys and managed to run the ball and play hard football. I was so sure that if we did not score and the Blue Stars will pass us the next drive we will never come back. I went twice on fourth and no, and the O-Line did the job with Casey and Bellaiche fighting for every inch. Ball control in the fourth quarter was the key for us.
AFI: Your next opponent will be the Molosses. You could not defeat them this season yet. Do you feel the team is capable of beating them this time?
X.M.: As I said previously, regular season and play-off games are two different things. The Molosses are a good team, with physical players and a great defense. Last year during the final regular season game we needed a tie or a win to go to the playoffs and have not been able to make it. So we are aware that it is tough to win there. We know that if we want to win we got to be better on offense and not allow big plays on defense as we did in previous games versus them.
AFI: This season will be your last. Do you have some goals you want to reach or just finish this season with a championship trophy?
X.M.: I have no specific goals for myself. I have never put myself ahead of the team or the organization. The fact that I will be leaving at the end of the season does not have any importance in what will happen in the weeks to come. We had a lot of difficulties this year with very few guys coming to practice and I told my players all year long ‘you will make that season what you want it to be, I am just here to help you out”. So if we would go until the end that would be their success. I have been lucky enough to play and coach the sport that I love for so many years that seeing mentalities changing is tough to me. No ring, no pic, no blah blah for me just the memories in my mind, so let us get it done.
AFI: What was it like returning to coaching? Why did you decide to return to your position?
X.M.: When I stepped away from coaching after the 2011 season, I was tired of some players’ attitude and my message was not printing with the new generations. I was tired of them and they were tired of me. But at the middle of the 2013 season, I realized as the GM and I figured out talking to the leaders of the team that the Head Coach at the moment was not very much involved in his mission to lead the team and we took the decision to part ways and I came back to finish the season. I cannot deny that I was missing the field, football is all my life, but during that break I took time to develop other things in my life. When I came back, I was surprised that some of the players I had trouble with were happy to see me back at coaching. And that break was probably needed and benefited because after we have been able to win two titles in 2015 and 2016.
AFI: What feelings do you have now before each playoff games? Do you see it as it might be your last game?
X.M.: I never think that the next game could be the last one. I know it could be but I do not want to get emotional and if you prepare a game as if it would be the last one, you are already losing it in my opinion… Since I took my decision and informed the organization and the players early February, I felt a change in my mind. Since that day I feel very comfortable and free and I am already thinking on what is next. That will be a big leap into the unknown after 19 years for the GM/HC of the Cougars. But it seems very exciting.
AFI: What are your feelings before the Molosses game?
X.M.: Nothing different than before any other game. I will try to prepare my guys for a tough fight, and I will give everything and try to make the good calls to help them achieve the goal to win one game at a time.