McKnight and company still building towards a championship run
by Randy Pascal
On so many levels, the summer of 2018 can be looked upon as “building from a solid base of 2017 success” for the Sudbury Junior Gladiators.
It all starts with second year coach J.J. McKnight.
The young man who guided his team to a record of 2-4 and the first playoff win in franchise history (at the junior OFC level) is back at the helm, armed
with a boatload of knowledge gleaned from his first full season as head coach.
“I now realize how important the pre-season really is, and not even in terms of the football stuff – the plays, the players – but rather getting all of
the ducks in a row for all of the other stuff before hand, so that when football time comes, you can just focus on football,” said McKnight. “I've gotten
much better at that, from last year to this year. That was very important.”
And while all of that might provide some critical help when it comes to the entire operation of running a summer football team, the reality for McKnight
and his staff is that most of the local football community will be focused far more on the product on the field.
Thankfully, this one always enjoys an enthusiastic “ticking off the box” from the man in charge.
“The guys that we expected to come back, came back, for the most part, which is awesome – save maybe one or two guys,” said McKnight. “The guys that
came back look bigger, they're stronger, they've been here since day one, they know how we do things around here and they've been trying to set the tone
for the rest of the guys.”
“As for the rest of the guys, the numbers and the talent within those numbers is fantastic.” Where the varsity Gladiators sent out an early season cry
for help, looking to work their way up closer to the 35-40 player range, the juniors have exceeded the 50-athlete plateau, almost since day one. And we're
not talking about simply bodies on the field, either.
There is a core of talent that McKnight and his staff are eagerly looking to mold. For the second straight year, there is excitement surrounding the
size on the lines. “A lot of our size on the line graduated up, but we have a lot of guys coming in behind the, who are looking very, very sharp,” said
McKnight. “For the Junior Glads, this is probably the most linemen that we've had, ever.”
“We've got depth on both lines, we've got size and aggression on both lines. Barring injuries, I would think we will have a dedicated “O” line and
dedicated “D” line for the first time in quite some time.” While both sides have looked sharp, the defensive front seven are benefiting from a glut of
returnees, with the likes of Ravyn Mendonca, Ben Cacciotti, Deon McGregor and Cole Kennedy welcoming the impactful presence of rookie Tyson
On offense, Alex MacNabb has made the move from guard to center, which puts him right in the middle of a glut of freshman that he will look to
guide and anchor, with Mishkwaat Mckuabbie, Anthony Wabegijig, Julien Senechal and Curtis Perusini all either new to the role, or taking on
greater responsibility this summer.
“Guard was simpler, because I didn't have to worry about snapping the ball, but center isn't too bad,” noted MacNabb before practice on Monday. "I'm
really focused on trying to snap the ball, but also being prepared to take the hit. I've got to get the snap off cleanly while being ready to go out there
and hit somebody."
Having never played organized football, at all, before signing on with the Jr Glads last year, MacNabb has shown remarkable aptitude in picking up some
of the key nuances of the game, especially in the trenches. “Pass blocking is a little easier, a lot more about just holding them off, whereas run blocking,
you have to go downfield and take on more people and be more conscious of where you are going.”
That task was certainly made easier last summer with the rapid progression of running back Liam Cousineau, who now suits up with the Varsity
Gladiators. Still, McKnight likes what he has in the form of returning wideouts Tyler Bell and Robbie Zulich, with quarterback Lucas
Howland looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued summer in 2017.
“He's a tall quarterback that runs well,” said McKnight of his Lively Hawks' product at pivot. “He has some experience with the high school team, and he
has great coaching there.” A newcomer in the backfield, Tristan Day has looked “really fast and decisive”, in the eyes of McKnight.
Of course, one of the challenges in the OFC junior ranks is the need to avoid giving up a large number of big plays, either to opposing offensive units
or special teams, many of them featuring some phenomenal athletic talent that will ultimately find their way to post-secondary ranks.
Returning defensive back Dakota Rowlinson is up to the challenge. A week or so away from celebrating his 16th birthday, the St Charles
College junior brings a completely different football background to the table than MacNabb. Born in Sudbury but raised in Casselman (outside of Ottawa),
Rowlinson played between six to seven years, before high school, shared between Russell (Ontario) and the Joe MacDonald Youth Football
League in Sudbury.
“The good thing about being young and learning new things is that you get to try out a lot of different positions,” said Rowlinson. “My first year of
Joe Mac, I was at center. I was playing at 120 pounds and the guy I practiced with was 230 pounds. It was a challenge, but I learned how to block
Looking far more like a prototypical “DB” than a lineman these days, the well-spoken teen figured out quickly how to survive in a physical setting as he
lined up opposite much larger opponents. “I was mostly just a speed based player, very reliant on my speed,” he said. “But with tackling, as long as you
hit low, you're good.”
And like all those who are returning to the fold this summer, Rowlinson encapsulates the desire to build upon the foundation of 2017. “The thing I want
to see the most is just how much we are going to progress towards the end of the year,” he said. “You realize just how much you and your peers have
improved over the course of the season.”