Please, like and share the original story to help Ontario’s local media with their coverage of NFC teams and events.
By Ben Leeson, Sudbury Star
Hunter Holub could have found reasons to hang his head Saturday night.
His Sudbury Spartans had just dropped a heartbreaker 21-14 decision to the Ottawa Sooners in their Northern Football Conference quarter-final, in a game the Nickel City squad may have won, if not for a dropped TD, a pair of missed field goals and a late fumble.
But Holub’s gaze was straight ahead, to what he hopes will be an even brighter future for semi-pro football in Sudbury.
“It’s sort of bittersweet,” Holub said. “We didn’t play that well in the first half and we know we can play well, we know we can compete with the good teams like Ottawa. They went 5-3 this year and they were ranked like third in the league, they’re a very good team, so to come out and almost have a comeback, even with the mistakes we made, seeing how we can play and finishing off a game like that, I think it’s good.”
Holub threw a touchdown pass to Justin Poirier and ran for a TD of his own Saturday night to cap a strong rookie season. He’s already looking forward to his sophomore campaign.
“I plan to keep playing,” he said. “Looking at these older guys, Matt Furino, Red (Erik Conrad), Whitey (Kevin White), they have a great bond with each other and with the team and they’re encouraging all the young people to come out, so I plan to play in the future, and hopefully, more people do, too.”
Hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2015, the Spartans had a slow start against the Sooners, who were missing a couple of strong starters, but remained a quality club on both sides of the ball.
They showed that when quarterback Danny Mullins led a long first-quarter drive and finished with a short keeper for a TD. The ensuing convert made it 7-0.
Ottawa’s offence sputtered deep in its own end near the midway mark of the second frame, however, allowing Sudbury to take over at the visitors’ 34-yard line. A 14-yard catch and run by Josh Cuomo put the locals inside the 20, where they came within a hair of scoring a major of their own when Holub found James Howatt open in the end zone, but Howatt couldn’t quite hold onto the pass.
Spartans kicker Massimo Cimino then attempted a field goal, but booted it just wide.
Sudbury’s defence stymied Ottawa on another drive down the field, sacking Mullins to end the half.
Holub had just missed Poirier with a long pass when the first-year quarterback aired it out for No. 20 again, this time connecting for a 87-yard score and bringing the crowd to its feet. Cimino’s PAT tied the score, 7-7, with 7:50 left in the third quarter.
The Spartans missed on another field goal attempt later in the third.
Ottawa restored its lead won Daniel McGrowder’s eight-yard reception in the fourth quarter, then scored again on an option pitch to Mike Leno.
The Spartans embarked on a strong drive late in the contest that culminated in Holub’s wild scramble for a 21-yard TD, narrowing the score to 21-14, but could come no closer.
“Losing is never a positive thing,” Spartans head coach Junior Labrosse said. “But the thing you can take out of this loss, as a coach, is the fact the guys didn’t give up. They scored, but we hung in there. Offence had to do certain things, we had trouble moving the ball, but some adjustments were made.”
Early on, he saw the same signs of panic that marked the Spartans’ early games this season, but the players “snapped out of it.”
“As coaches, that’s what you want. Play the game, don’t just say we can’t do this or can’t do that – eventually, it will happen, and if we can’t do that, we’ll do something else, and in the second half, we hit Justin on that big one.
“Ottawa came to play, but we missed a touchdown in the end zone, two field goals, and that’s the game. In my mind, we won that game, but on paper, on record, it doesn’t show. Howatt makes that catch, Massimo hits those field goals, and we win it. And this is a strong Ottawa team, coming from a community where they have a strong football background. We showed them that guys up north, and hopefully, a lot of fans or young players who are out there wondering, is this league garbage, as has been spread around for a long time, it’s a beer league, it’s a bunch of old guys, it’s all of this, maybe there have been some eyes opened, going, wow, there’s some good football here.”
The season was certainly an eye-opener for Holub, who was out of the game for three years after a successful run with the Lively Hawks high school team and Sudbury Gladiators varsity squad, before signing with the Spartans this past spring.
By Saturday, he was playing with noticeable confidence and plenty of poise.
“I knew at the start, I would be a bit rusty, after never playing and not throwing a ball in years competitively, and I knew there would be kinks to work out,” Holub said. “I think it was the Sault game, when we played there about halfway through the season, that was when I felt like this is who I am, this is what I’m going to be. Ever since then, it has gone uphill and I feel like I have finished on a peak.”
Like Holub, Labrosse’s mind was already turning to next season.
“Now, things are going to start again, go back to the drawing board,” Sudbury’s coach said. “What do we need to tweak? What do we need to adjust? The biggest thing is we need more players.”
While pleased with several of the changes since Dario Zulich and Sudbury Wolves Sports and Entertainment took ownership of the team last year, Labrosse hopes to have even more resources for recruiting in his bid to build an NFC contender.
“This isn’t hockey, where a body check might be thrown once every three shifts. These guys hit every play, so injuries happen. It doesn’t seem, numbers-wise, like it’s a long season, but it takes its toll. Football is a game where you hit every play, every practice, so we need more bodies. You never have enough. It happened tonight – we lost a lineman, then we were down to just five and you’re crossing your fingers as a coach going, I hope nobody else gets hurt.”
He hopes the positive experiences of newcomers like Holub and Matt Glass will also help in recruiting efforts.
“If I can keep this roster, but add to it, then look out, NFC.”