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Bisons already reaping benefits of new football home

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THE University of Manitoba Bisons football team will open their season on the big field on a Friday night, underneath stadium lights.

Last year (and the year before that, and the year before that, and... ), playing at University Stadium, the Bisons didn't even have any lights to shine on their field. Daylight games only, nothing like the season kickoff against the Alberta Golden Bears on Aug. 30 this year. For fans, the flexibility could be the most obvious benefit the new stadium brings to the local CIS team.

"I cannot wait to begin a brand-new tradition at the Investors Group Field this season," said Bisons head coach Brian Dobie Wednesday as the team unveiled its home opener. "This will be a very important milestone in the history of the Bison football program."

But for the Bisons, the new stadium -- Dobie calls it a "giant palace" -- already means more than Friday night lights and more seats to fill. For three years, Dobie has been carting architectural plans of Investors Group Field with him as he scours Canada, looking to entice top players to his program.

"The two most important rooms for every athlete are the locker-room and the weight room," Dobie said. "I challenge anybody, anywhere in the country, I don't care whether it's the Blue Jays, or the Canucks, or the Calgary Stampeders. I don't know of anybody in the country who will have a better combination of locker-room and weight-training facility than we will at Bison football. It's a huge recruiting tool, no queston."

Now, with the Bisons' 18,000-square -foot section of the underground facilities only a few baseboards away from completion, sitting as it does just down the hall from the Blue Bombers organization, there's an added buzz to that part of the package.

"Recruiting in football is so national, and so intensive, it's crazy out there," said Dobie. "I think we've been a pretty good recruiting program traditionally over the years, but that stadium, with almost anybody we choose has gotten us into our goal of being the final two or three (schools that a player considers)."

The new stadium isn't the entirety of the pitch, of course. But it's an awfully nice carrot to dangle: In January, the Bisons announced a commitment from 22-year-old Vancouver Island Raiders quarterback Jordan Yantz, the hottest recruit on the market this season. "That was a big recruiting process," Dobie said. "I think he really liked where our program was going. And to be honest with you, he was in love with the facilities."

He isn't the only one. On Wednesday, the Bisons announced commitments from five of Yantz' Raiders teammates, including three of his targets: slotback Michael Schaper, defensive back Tremaine Apperley, linebacker Jonathan Jones and receivers Dustin Pederson and Matt Sawyer.

The 6-2, 220-pound Schaper comes with a particularly impressive resumé, having won the 2011 Wally Buono Award as Canada's top junior player (Yantz won in 2012) after a season that saw him make 36 catches for 591 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

The new recruits could prove a boon for a team that is looking to climb back up the standings. After winning the Vanier Cup in 2007 with a perfect season, the Bisons have struggled in subsequent years and didn't make the playoffs again until last year, when they lost to the Calgary Dinos in the Canada West semifinal.

A more robust season -- and that marquee Friday night first game -- could also help the Bisons as they look to capitalize on the added seats at the new stadium.

While Dobie declined to give specific attendance figures the Bisons are shooting for, "there's a lot going on, a lot of plans," to draw new fans to the games, he said.

"There's a lot of high hopes."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 D4

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