Imperials to play for NFC championship

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By Mark Malone of the Sarnia Observer

Photo Credit: Tiffany Hart Photo

The Sarnia Imperials beat the Steel City Patriots 44-15 in a Northern Football Conference semifinal Saturday.

The Sarnia Imperials are going back to the Northern Football Conference championship game.

The Imperials beat the Steel City Patriots 44-15 in a semifinal Saturday in Burlington.

“The boys played great and kept very calm, but when pushed emotionally after half the guys just reeled each other in and knew we had bigger things ahead,” head coach Jake Cherski wrote to the Observer. “I’m so proud of this bunch. We are coming together finally and feel we have a great chance next week in Toronto versus the national champs.”

The Imperials (8-2) will visit the GTA All Stars (10-0) in the final this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Brampton’s Terry Fox Stadium.

The All Stars shut out the Ottawa Sooners 29-0 in the other semifinal.

The Imperials are in the NFC final for the second time in three years. They lost to the All Stars 29-21 in the 2016 final.

They’re seeking the first championship in franchise history.

“I want to ensure to this bunch that we have the tools to compete and that we won’t be bullied around,” Cherski wrote. “It’s our time. We have worked hard to build a top competitor team and, with making the championship game two of the past three seasons, we are ready to topple the giant. …

“The city is waiting for a champion football team and nothing would be better to represent Sarnia in the national championship game.”

Imperials quarterback Julian Shadd-Gentry completed seven passes for 107 yards. He ran for one touchdown and threw another to Josh Wright.

RJ Trice returned an interception for a 58-yard touchdown. Justin Nicolaisen also scored on an interception.

The Imperials had five interceptions, including two by Quade Krosch. Corey Howell had the other.

Jay Kelly also scored a touchdown on a return.

“Kelly had an amazing game and was all over the field,” Cherski wrote. “… (He) played his head off today. Clearly our player of the game and I guess if he goes, we all go.”

Mitch Haunnesh kicked a 27-yard field goal and was 5-of-6 on extra points. Bob Artell had 44 rushing yards and Austin Colter returned an onside kick 42 yards.

Dan White, Cody Burt and Dalton Gilmore each made a team-high four tackles.

The All Stars beat the Imperials 38-9 in the season opener May 26 at Norm Perry Park. The Imperials also lost their second game, but they’ve won eight in a row since then.

“As long as we take things serious at practice next week, we should be able to give the All Stars a good game,” Cherski wrote. “Our boys have to be disciplined and come to work this week and if they can listen, pay attention and commit to the process everything is going to be OK. All we want to do is give ourselves a chance and you never know what’s going to happen.”

The fan bus for the championship game will leave Sarnia at 3:30 p.m. The $60 fee includes a game ticket and a meal (hotdog or hamburger, chips, and pop).

At least 50 fans are needed for the bus. Payment is required before Thursday. Contact Cherski at 519-312-1364.

Bittersweet end to Spartans season

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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.”

Twitter: @ben_leeson

Spartans’ Costello relishes game-day experience

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By Ben Leeson, Sudbury Star

Sudbury GM sees bright future for organization

Bill Costello’s father, the late Gary (Satch) Costello, had him well prepared for a life on the sideline with the Sudbury Spartans.

“My dad told me, ‘You’re always the first one to arrive and you’re always the last one to leave,’ ” Costello recalled. “And it’s so true.”

That goes for not only Costello, the general manager and head trainer for the local Northern Football Conference outfit, but also the likes of equipment manager Mike Lynott, trainer Al Kuzenko, water boy Alex Dodds, as well as youngsters who may rotate in and out depending on availability, but whose contributions remain vital to making game day at James Jerome Sports Complex a success.

All volunteers, they’ll be working hard as ever when the Spartans kick off the NFC post-season Saturday against the Ottawa Sooners.

Game time is 7:30 p.m.

“The staff I have are actually amazing, that they are able to do what they do,” Costello said. “It’s a lot of little tasks to be able to take care of the big event.

“All of them make sure that these guys look and feel like they’re prepared for a game. There’s a lot of time that goes in before and after the game, from taping ankles to washing uniforms a couple of days after the game.”

As much as he trusts his staff, and full as his plate may be, Costello has yet to step back and embrace a more strictly managerial role. That may happen eventually, but for now, he enjoys being immersed in the game-day experience.

“It’s kind of a tough one,” he said. “I absolutely love the game days. It’s being able to find the right type of people to surround myself with, but I would love to be able to do a little bit less. Junior (Labrosse, head coach), Wally (Wilson, special teams/offensive line coach) and Gord (Goddard, president) are actually always pushing me to do a bit less every year and you know what, sometimes the grandiose plan is to get a fully-fledged training staff and everything, but i like to lead from the front, lead by example, and I’m not willing to get someone else to do something unless I’m willing to do it myself. That’s not to say I wouldn’t give up a lot of this stuff, but hopefully each year, I can manage a little bit more and do a little bit less, not have to tape at the games, but kind of sit back and schmooze a little bit with the fans, see all my alumni that have actually come out to the games. The future’s a little bit brighter for me, with all of the stuff that has happened the last few years, and I think it will be good for the next few years.”

Among the most significant changes has been the purchase of the Spartans by local businessman Dario Zulich in spring of 2017 and their incorporation into Sudbury Wolves Sports and Entertainment, alongside the Sudbury Wolves hockey club and Sudbury Five basketball team.

Both of the sister squads will be well-represented at Saturday’s playoff game, as sponsors for the event.

Activities are to include fan giveaways, an appearance by the Sudbury Five Dance Squad and a performance by local musician Dan MacDonald.

The Dellelce Family Hospitality Tent will be open before and during the game.

“All year, it has been building to this,” Costello said. “We had our home opener and the beer tent came along, we had some SPAD (Laurentian University sports administration) students who were able to come and help out, otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to do some of this stuff. As a solo organization, we weren’t able to do that in the past, and now, we’re actually part of a bigger organization, there’s a lot more back-room support for these types of things.

“They will feed one another. Hopefully, my players and my staff can actually go down to a Five game and maybe volunteer to do some security or some public relations stuff. There’s a little bit of give and take with that, but overall, the organization has been absolutely amazing and patient, because football is very different from hockey and basketball is very different from football. We are like a family, because a lot of the organization involves friends and families, but now the public is getting on board and seeing that it actually is quality football, and having that promotional end of it, to actually market and promote it, from the Sudbury Wolves, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Twitter: @ben_leeson