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By Ben Leeson of the The Sudbury Star
Photo Credit: Ben Leeson
Erik Conrad could have spent the moments after his final football game of 2019 dwelling on the unfortunate, almost absurd set of circumstances that hampered his team’s efforts against the Ottawa Sooners on Saturday night.
He might have been forgiven for doing so, too, with not one, not two, but three quality quarterbacks watching the game in civilian clothes, the last one injured only days before the Northern Football Conference quarter-final, leaving the locals with only three practices to improvise an offence that had limited success in a 41-0 loss at James Jerome Sports Complex.
Instead, however, the all-star linebacker chose to focus on the effort itself, which he rated as high as any the Spartans put forth this season.
“Big shout-out to Riley Roy,” said Conrad of the defensive back-turned-QB, who had never taken an offensive snap prior to Saturday’s contest. “I mean, we lost an entire position group, the quarterbacks, and without hesitation, he steps up and, with confidence, plays the best he can. Three days, it’s hard to learn a whole offence for the playoffs, so a big shout-out to him and a lot of respect.”
Despite the score, Conrad was equally impressed with his comrades on defence, who dealt with poor field position throughout the evening, yet held the Sooners offence, led by former Spartans QB Travis Campbell, to just a pair of scores until things broke open late in the third quarter.
“This year was a lot of fun, playing with a lot of young guys like Ben Caccioti, Cole Kennedy, Victor Paajanen, I mean, those guys are 17 years old and playing with a bunch of men, and they balled,” Conrad said. “They made a lot of plays and I’m excited to watch them in high school, OUA, whatever direction they go. I’m just excited for them to come out, to learn at this level and play really well. There were some mistakes, but they’re ballers.”
That wasn’t enough to stop the Sooners, however, who had narrowly escaped Sudbury with a 25-28 victory just one week earlier, but returned with a larger, healthier lineup and renewed confidence to open the post-season.
Campbell got things started for the visitors with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Alex Gauthier, with 1:50 left in the opening quarter, then led another march down the field before Remy John Cimakinda scored on a five-yard run.
Brandon McDonald ran 47 yards to the end zone with 2:13 left in the third frame and Ottawa only picked things up from there. Dylan Hines capped a drive with a one-yard rush and a major with 14:35 to go in the fourth, then Campbell found Gauthier with back-to-back TD passes of 20 yards, with 8:29 remaining, and 38, with 3:06 left on the clock.
“It feels great,” Campbell said. “I was a little nervous last week, coming in and playing guys I know and played with for seven years, so there was a little bit of pressure on me to perform and to make sure I was doing my best. This week, coming into the playoffs, we had a lot of guys coming back who we didn’t have last week, so that was a huge help.
“It’s nice when you have your whole team, you’re not missing half of it due to injuries, travelling light. We didn’t have a bus last week or this week, so we were missing guys just for that purpose, but the guys who came out, they wanted to come and play, they drove down, spent their day coming all the way out here and put everything they had into the game, and it’s great.”
With the momentum gained from back-to-back wins over the Spartans, the Sooners could be primed for a playoff run — Ottawa is the only team to beat defending-champion GTA, its semifinal opponent, though the champs had their own QB woes at the time.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time, but we know we have a great team and we think we can compete with anybody,” Campbell said. “We have shown that, we beat GTA earlier in the year and we fought them real hard the next week, even though it didn’t turn out the same way. We have been competitive in every loss we have had, so we think we’ll give anybody a fight.”
The Spartans will have to wait a year before making another attempt to advance past the first round of the playoffs, something the team has not done since re-entering the NFC in 2011, following a four-year leave of absence.
Head coach Junior Labrosse knew his crew would be in tough on Saturday, following the loss of starting QB Hunter Holub earlier in the year, then receiver/pivot Nick Rideout, and finally rookie Adam Rocha in the regular-season finale. It didn’t help that standout running back Josh Cuomo, though back in the lineup, was far from 100 per cent and nearly a non-factor in his typical role.
Still, like Conrad, Labrosse made it a point to praise his team’s attitude and approach to what proved its last game of the season.
“The effort was there and it has been there all year,” Labrosse said. “You can’t fault the guys for the type of game they played. Special teams, offence, defence, they all gave it 100 per cent, we just didn’t get the outcome we were looking for.
“When you lose three quarterbacks, of course you’re going to get the what-ifs, the woulda, coulda, shoulda. After every season that ends, if it doesn’t end in a championship, coaches will always dwell on that stuff — what if we called this, what if we had done that — but that doesn’t change the outcome. Of course, if we take away the injuries, would the game have been more competitive, would we have been able to push that defence? For sure. But I’m not taking anything away from the 12 guys who battled and who, in three days, tried to put in an offensive system with a kid who has never played quarterback. Hats off to Riley Roy for stepping in, playing both sides, defence and offence, and doing everything he could to try to get us good field position. Hats off to the O-line, too, for trying to give some glimpses of holes, for giving Riley time to try to throw some passes. And our defence, when you’re getting bad field position, it’s easier for quarterbacks to take deep shots, and that’s what they did.”
Sudbury’s coach complimented the Sooners, too, for taking care of business.
“They played a very good game,” Labrosse said. “They were the better team tonight.”
Following a breakthrough year on the recruiting front, aided in part by the collapse of the Sudbury Gladiators varsity program, and the success of rookies at several positions, the Spartans could be well-positioned for future success. Labrosse hopes their experience has been positive and will encourage many to return in 2020.
“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “I have coached seasons where you have a player who’s got potential, but he doesn’t come back the following season, because of work, school or whatever reasons. Next year is next year and we’ll see, when January, February rolls around, we’ll start to communicate and we’ll see. What are we going to get from our feeder system? Right now, I’m not sure. Everything is still up in the air.”
And whether the source was post-game emotion, or a serious pondering of his football future, Labrosse wasn’t prepared to speak with certainty about his future status as bench boss.
“You finish second in the division, you finish 5-3, it’s an accomplishment compared to how we finished last year,” Labrosse said. “We hosted another playoff game, but this losing in the post-season, not being able to get to the second round, is getting very tiresome. I don’t know how much more I can take of that.”