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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018
Spartans have the makings of something good, despite playoff loss
2018-07-29
by Randy Pascal

On the one hand, a 21-14 home playoff loss to the Ottawa Sooners is nothing to be embarassed about, a very competitive showing against a highly talented opponent.

On the other hand, the Sudbury Spartans' post-season setback, at home, had a definite feel of what might have been, the locals leaving 13 points on the board despite a very slow start, offensively.

Such is the wrap to a summer schedule that has seen far more ups than downs for the storied northern Ontario NFC franchise.

The early signs, on Saturday, however, were not positive. Ottawa moved the ball successfully on both of their opening first quarter drives, racking up seven first downs and rewarded with a one-yard quarterback sneak by Danny Mullins, into the end zone, with 1:37 showing on the clock.

The Spartans, for their part, were victims of back to back "three and outs", amassing six yards of total offense through fifteen minutes of play. The tide started to shift in quarter two. Sudbury linebacker Zach Pecman picked off a pass, right around midfield, giving the offense their best field position of the game.

Quarterback Hunter Holub and company began to show signs of life, the pivot scrambling eight yards and the unit rewarded with their initial first down when Ottawa jumped offside on the ensuing snap.

The home side narrowly missed deadlocking the contest before half, Holub sailing a touchdown strike to receiver James Howatt, only to see the Spartans' veteran lose his footing at the very last moment, the ball bouncing in and out of his hands, just inside the goal line.

The missed opportunity proved more costly when Sudbury kicker Massimo Cimino then sailed a 31 yard field goal attempt wide, as Marcus Severe returned the errant attempt beyond the goal line, keeping the Spartans off the board.

The notion of this glorious chance for coach Junior Labrosse's troops perhaps slipping through as a "one-off" was quickly put to rest in the second half. On their very first drive, the Spartans got their aerial attack untracked, with Holub hitting Howatt for a 12 yard gain.

Time to air it out some more. Pinned deep in their own territory, the Spartans opened a sequence with a bomb in the direction of Justin Poirier, a pass that was maybe five to seven yards overthrown.

After connecting with Nick Micelotta for a 14 yard pick-up two plays later, Holub went back to the well, this time successfully, as Poirier came back slightly on a deep throw and then outraced the Ottawa defenders to paydirt, an 86 yard pass and run touchdown that knotted the contest at sevens.

With momentum shifting, the Spartans looked to grab the lead a few minutes later, only to have Cimino misfire from 36 yards out, the game remaining deadlocked at 7-7 as the third quarter expired. Now the Sooners meant business.

Beginning the final period at their own 47, the Sooners continued to mix in the running game with back Mike Leno, who finished with 162 yards on 32 carries, and just enough passing from Mullins to keep the Sudbury defense guessing.

A 19 yard run by Leno was followed up by a rare untimely unecessary roughness penalty to the Spartans, with the visitors setting up shop, first and goal from the eight. Moments later, Mullins found Daniel McGrowder out in the flat, the wideout just barely stretching out to reach the end zone cone as a convert from Andrew Banerjee gave the Sooners a 14-7 lead.

The real back-breaker came on the very next Sudbury possession, when James Trevena-McConville darted past both Holub and Josh Cuomo, recovering a fumble on the Sudbury twenty-eight.

Five plays later, Ottawa parlayed a picture perfect option, with Leno scampering home from the six as the Sooners scored twice in a span of 4:16. With the Spartans turning the ball over on downs on their ensuing sequence, this match-up appeared to be in the books.

But as they have done countless times this year, the Sudbury footballers refused to roll over and die. A missed Ottawa field goal, which saw a pair of Sooners' penalties tacked on, allowed the Spartans to take over on their own 27.

Holub went to work. Passes to Howatt (18 yards), Micelotta (10) and Matt Glass (35) promptly marched the ball down to the Ottawa twenty-one. With 2:05 left in the game, Holub zig-zagged his way in for the major, giving the Spartans one final shot for the tie.

A first on-side kick attempt actually held promise, the ball bouncing off a Sooners player and back towards the Spartans, only to have the play ruled inelligible, the kick coming prematurely, before the referee had whistled in the play.

A second attempt did not take the same fortuitious bounce, and with Leno rushing for 27 yards on his final four carries, the Sooners milked out the clock. Though the Spartans did not enjoy the greatest of starts, the players insisted that they were not intimidated, in the least, by a program that has enjoyed a great deal of success, historically speaking.

"I was really positive (before the game)," said Pecman, who has really settled into his own as an outside linebacker in just his second year with the Spartans. "I missed the game against Tri City, and when I found out the boys did a really good job against them, I thought this could be a really good game."

"I thought it was going to be within a touchdown or two." With Ottawa quarterback and 2017 NFC Offensive Player of the Year Jeremy Mussche unable to make the trip to Sudbury, the Sooners surprised Sudbury with a very different look, offensively.

"They were very pass-heavy against GTA, so we actually prepped a lot for the pass coverage," said Pecman. "We weren't expecting that many runs from 25 (Mike Leno). He did a pretty good job today, unfortunately."

As for his interception, Pecman noted that this constituted his first ever pick, dating back to his days as a Lockerby Viking as well. "I saw him (Mullins) going out and I thought there was no way he was going to pass it to that guy. I saw him reach back and I booked it, grabbed the ball and dragged my toes and hoped for the best."

"I dropped one last year against North Bay, so I needed one this year. I was ecstatic." Just 23 years of age, Pecman is already looking forward to his continued development, helping out a group of players with whom he has quickly formed a meaningful bond.

"I've improved on a lot of things, pass coverage wise, and the past few games have been really good for me," he said. "This is a tough and mean defense. I love them. They've always been mean. When I first came out, they scared me. I thought, this is going to be good."

Without a doubt, the Sudbury Spartans have the makings of something that could be very good, in the years to come.

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