Spartans stumble late, face rematch with Sooners to open playoffs

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By Ben Leeson of the The Sudbury Star

Photo Credit: Ben Leeson

Junior Labrosse woke up Sunday morning with the same two words on his mind that had been there when he walked off the James Jerome Sports Complex turf on Saturday night.

“Six minutes.”

That’s about how much time was left on the clock when, with his Sudbury Spartans leading the Ottawa Sooners 18-7, things began to unravel for the locals.

A wild sequence that began with what should have been a game-saving stand by the Sudbury defence, which included consecutive sacks on former Spartans pivot Travis Campbell, led to a missed field goal and a single for the Sooners, then a fumble and a TD for the visiting side.

Still nursing a four-point advantage, the Spartans turned the ball over yet again when first-year quarterback Adam Rocha threw an interception, also returned for a touchdown. One more turnover eventually led to another Ottawa major and a heartbreaking 28-25 defeat for Sudbury, which gave up top seed in the Northern Football Conference West Division and a favourable first-round matchup this weekend.

Instead, the Spartans, who finished the regular-season at 5-3, will again face the Sooners again on home turf, this coming Saturday at 7 p.m.

“That game slipped away in a period of six minutes,” said Labrosse, Sudbury’s head coach and offensive co-ordinator, when reached on Sunday afternoon. “And it wasn’t the fault of the defence at all. The defence played stellar, they did what they were asked to. They played out, we got an interception, we got sacks, we put pressure on. The one thing that has to be cleaned up is the chitter-chatter after, some players have to learn to shut their mouths, and not give us costly penalties, but apart from that, they played an A-1 game.”

Labrosse was just as pleased with the play of his offensive line, which has steadily improved over the course of the regular season, responding well to criticism by Labrosse early in the summer.

“They made holes when required,” Sudbury’s bench boss said. “Ottawa has a tough defence and we knew that and we prepped for it all week. We knew they’d bring the pressure, we knew they’d have a good front seven and a good secondary, that it was going to be a hard battle, but the O-line gave time for the quarterback to throw. They did what they were asked to.”

But Labrosse, who’s never too shy to call out a player on either side of the ball, said the wheels fell off on Saturday, at least in part, due to inexperience at the quarterback position and some questionable decision-making late in the contest.

Coaches wanted to keep the ball on the ground and to kill the clock, he explained, but their pivot had other ideas.

“He thought he knew better,” Labrosse said of Rocha. “He came to the sideline and coaches told him what to do, then he went out there and did what he thought. And that’s what drove me nuts.”

Knowing the young QB and serving as his coach in high school, Labrosse is hopeful he’ll take a lesson from the loss.

“A quarterback has got to learn if the defence is playing that well, you’ve got to help them out,” Labrosse said.

“The game plan should have been simple at that point. You’re up 18-7. Does it seem boring for a quarterback? Yes, because what does a quarterback want to do? He wants the touchdown passes, the glory, all of that. But No. 1, he has to be a leader and do what’s best for the team, period. If that means he’s got to stand there and hand off the ball 50 times in a game, if it’s going to cause us to win the game, that’s what a quarterback has go to do.”

Ottawa scored first, capping a grinding, back-and-forth first quarter with Bobby Massie’s reception, on a pass from Campbell, with 3:14 left in the opening frame. Sudbury responded in the second, however, when Rocha, who had narrowly missed connecting with Josh Duckett for an earlier TD, found his teammate in the end zone with 12:03 on the clock. Massimo Cimino, who had a strong game as both place-kicked and punter after some struggles against GTA the week before, added a field goal, then a single to give Sudbury an 11-7 halftime lead.

A fantastic TD catch by Nick Witzke, at the very back of the end zone, put the Spartans up 18-7 with 3:52 to go in the third. Sudbury nursed that lead until roughly the midway mark of the fourth, before the wild sequence that led to major scores by Ottawa’s Terrik Valcin, twice, and RJ Crisostomo.

The last of those meant Sudbury’s final drive, which ended on another touchdown pass to Witzke with no time remaining, wasn’t enough to change the outcome of the game, nor to prevent the Sarnia Imperials from leapfrogging into first in the West with their shutout of Tri-City.

Veteran defensive end Andrew Gillis said the result was a lesson not only for players on offence, but the entire team.

“It’s about playing a full 60-minute game,” Gillis said. “That’s all we can do and hopefully, we get better from there, we have a good week at practice and we can improve on the performance we put out today.”

While he acknowledged the frustration that follows when defensive players earn good field position, only to watch a team sputter on offence, Gillis said it’s important for the team to stick together and stay focused.

“You just have to go and do your job the whole game,” he said. “It’s hard to go back out there, but if you don’t, nobody else is going to, either. You just have to buckle up your chin strap, go at it and hope you can give the offence a few more chances with the ball and hope they can do something with it.”

If the team did have to lose on Saturday, Gillis said, he’s glad to have another crack at the Sooners.

“We know what they do on offence and we know what they do on defence,” he said. “It will be a completely different game after we look at film and have a good week of practice. It will be a different outcome, I’m sure.”

Labrosse, too, said for all their disappointment at missing the division title, it’s important the Spartans don’t forget the positives from their last performance and work to build on those.

“Any time you have a rematch with someone, it’s always a great opportunity,” Labrosse said. Now, let’s see what the guys have learned from this. You’re facing a team that has played you, so they’re going to make adjustments and we’re going to have to make adjustments, too. You might meet a totally different opponent. They may come with a different offensive system, and different defensive system, you don’t know, so you have to be prepared.”

Twitter: @ben_leeson