Regina Thunder products heading to Vanier Cup with UBC Thunderbirds

Yianni Cabylis is looking to go out with a bang.

The 24-year-old Regina product is in his final season of CIS eligibility with the UBC Thunderbirds, who are to play the Montreal Carabins in the Vanier Cup on Saturday in Quebec City.

“It truly means the world to me,” Cabylis said of finishing his CIS football career in the national final. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to get the opportunity to represent UBC and, in a sense, my hometown in the Vanier Cup and to get a shot at winning a national championship.”

Cabylis, a linebacker, played four seasons with the PFC’s Regina Thunder before moving on to UBC prior to the 2013 Canada West season.

He was joined in Vancouver by defensive end Boyd Richardson, another Thunder product who also will end his career in Saturday’s game.

“This is my 15th year of playing football, so it’s bittersweet to be finishing and to know it’s done,” said Richardson, 24. “But I’m excited that I got the opportunity to play in these extra playoff games and to go out at the highest level that I can.”

In 2013, the T-Birds finished fourth in Canada West with a 4-4 record in the duo’s first regular season in Vancouver, but lost in a semifinal to the Calgary Dinos. Last season, UBC went 2-6 and missed the playoffs.

This season, UBC posted a 6-2 regular-season record and finished second behind Calgary. After dispatching the Manitoba Bisons in a semifinal, the T-Birds upset the first-place Dinos in the Hardy Cup conference final.

On Saturday, UBC beat the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in the Uteck Bowl to earn a shot at the defending-champion Carabins in the Vanier Cup.

“I thought coming out to UBC that we would eventually have a chance at the national championship — however many years that it took,” said Cabylis, a graduate of Sheldon-Williams Collegiate. “Now that it’s here, it’s a real surreal moment.”

The T-Birds benefitted this season from the addition of quarterback Michael O’Connor, who transferred to UBC from the Penn State Nittany Lions. Perhaps a bigger acquisition, though, was head coach Blake Nill.

Nill guided the Dinos to six straight conference titles (2008 through ’13) and three Vanier Cup appearances during his nine seasons at the team’s helm. But he shocked Canada West in December when he left Calgary for UBC.

“He has made a huge difference, just in the way he has changed the culture in the program and our mindset,” Cabylis said. “We’ve had the feeling all season that no matter what was going on, we truly felt we could win in every situation.”

Montreal has more experience in the Vanier Cup than the Thunderbirds, having won the CIS title last season by beating the McMaster Marauders. None of the current T-Birds were active the last time UBC appeared in the game … in 1997.

But the T-Birds will have some familiarity with the surroundings, having played a pre-season game against the host Laval Rouge et Or. The Vanier Cup is being played at Laval’s home field.

“It’s kind of a cool thing that we get to finish this season where we started,” said Richardson, a product of Campbell Collegiate. “We were successful in Laval last time, so we hope we can have that same result.”

Having beaten Manitoba (last season’s Hardy Cup champion) and Calgary (a perennial power in Canada West) in the conference playoffs, the T-Birds could be viewed as a team of destiny.

Richardson, however, isn’t sure that title fits his squad.

“We’re just a team that works hard,” he said. “We’re happy to be as successful as we’ve been so far.

“We just want to go as far as possible. We’re going to keep working and hopefully we get the result we want.”

(Photo: Boyd Richardson (90) and Yianni Cabylis (27) celebrate with UBC head coach Blake Nill after the Thunderbirds won the Hardy Cup in Calgary on Nov. 14, 2015. Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds)

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The 13th Man Foundation is not affiliated with UBC and is a separate and independent legal entity that sets its own fundraising priorities.