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Saturday, Sep. 22, 2018
A Gladiator summer not quite as planned
by Randy Pascal

Summarized succintly, the summer of 2017 never quite came together in the manner that most of those involved with the Sudbury Varsity Gladiators imagined it would.

Coming off an impressive post-season run that would catapult the 2016 squad all the way into a league championship final, the Glads followed a pair of blowout wins to open the 2017 regular season with a four game winless stretch to close it out, though most contests remained in doubt well into the fourth quarter.

A 46-2 shellacking of the Nipissing Wild in the North Division quarter-final provided perhaps a little false hope of more playoff magic this year, with the Sudbury crew eliminated on the road just a week later thanks to a 36-7 loss at the hands of the Peterborough Wolverines.

"They have a real good ball club over there and that quarterback (Ryan Astrom) is really tough to contain," noted Gladiators assistant coach Neil Petrin at the year-end team banquet last week. "He ran around for quite a while and was able to make some big plays by forcing us to cover for a while."

"I thought they (the Wolverines) were pretty well conditioned," Petrin continued. "I thought there was a time in the second quarter, where it was a 13-7 game, and then we got a little bit tired. They were able to stay at the top of their game, longer in the game, and were able to make some big plays on us."

Both head coach Aaron Rehel, as well as Petrin, have signalled their intentions not to return to the Gladiator coaching ranks in 2018. Though the graduation of 18 players, due to the age limit, will be a tough pill to swallow, there may have been a silver lining in the injury bug that bit Sudbury hard this summer.

"A lot of guys stepped in when we had injuries," stated Petrin. "We got a lot of guys playing time this year, and a lot of those players rose to the occasion. A lot of those guys were young, this year, but filled in nicely, and that's a good thing for our program."

To be sure, there were some performances that raised a few eyebrows. "(Linebacker) Sam Sirkka stepped into a starter's role early in the year, but he really started making more and more plays as the year went on, and we saw him playing with aggression, which we liked," said Petrin.

"Wide receiver Nick Witzke was fighting just to get into the lineup, to begin, and by the end of the year, he was starting and being a regular contributor to the offense." And while former Jr Gladiator and Lively Hawks' standout Nick Rideout was not an unknown commodity for the Varsity coaching staff, his versatility was much appreciated, earning him the honours as "Gladiator of the Year".

"We discovered his talents all over the field, as a punter, as a kicker, as a returner, and we played him at DB, receiver and quarterback," noted Petrin. "He's quite an athlete, and we really discovered all of the different uses that we could have for him."

And as might be expected, there were the veteran stalwarts, including linebacker Graeme Stevens, the graduating member of the Lo-Ellen Park Knights who leaves shortly for his first U Sports training camp with the Mount Allison Mounties.

Stevens was named both Outstanding Defensive Player as well as Team MVP, leaving behind an impressive legacy in the process. "He'll be quite a loss to the program as both a leader and a player, for both the things that the public would see, and for the stuff they don't," said Petrin.

"Graeme leads by example, always trying to elevate the tone in practice." It was a foundation that was set during his time working closely with high school head coach Kevin Ellsworth, over the course of his five year career as a Knight.

"Something that was stressed to me during my time at Lo-Ellen was good sportsmanship and being accountable," said Stevens. "When you're on the field, at practice, in a game, you represent yourself, your school, your community. You want to give 100% in absolutely everything that you do."

In fact, Stevens was quick to identify at least a couple of several role models that paved the way for him to become the player that the younger Gladiators could now look to for guidance. "When I was in grade nine, Eric Donaldson was captain of the senior Lo-Ellen team and the Gladiators," recalled Stevens.

"He was just a hard working guy, showed up every day at practice, the last guy off the field. His work ethic was unbelievable. Another guy is Matt Glass, such an honourable guy, the type of guy that just does it the right way."

Though some have by-passed the opportunity of competing in one last summer of football before heading away to university training camps in the past, Stevens had no misgivings about offsetting the risk of injury with the many positives that come from being on the field.

"I wanted that "in game" experience, it helps get your legs underneath you," he said. "You always feel rusty the first two weeks into football after the winter, I find. I kind of got that out of me. And I really wanted to work on my open field tackling. It's good just to play as much football as you possibly can, in my mind."

Joining Rideout and Stevens in the list of team award winners were:

Samson Recollet - Offensive Player of the Year

David Pushman - Special Teams Player of the Year

Christopher Leon - Lineman of the Year

Along with the likes of Leon, Santi, Stevens and Recollet, the 2017 graduating class of Gladiators also featured Lee Kmyta, Zach Corcoran, Brandon Maki, Brandon Chenier, Malcolm Cain, Noah Skuce, Simon Cope, Ben Harris, Quinn Blanchard, Amitesh Guraya, Darcy Labelle, Riley Roy, Sean Antonioni and Jared Loyer.

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