Driving past both Queen's Athletic Field and the James Jerome Sports Complex over the course of the past week or two, I can't help but to be reminded of the absence of high-school football this year.
And while I suppose I could dwell on all that we currently do not have, I chose not to.
Rather, tackling an initiative that time likely would not allow for in any other year, I caught up with a trio of fabled football gents, enjoying the opportunity to reminisce about some of the more compelling SDSSAA championship runs of the past twenty years.
While all three would have to be considered as surprises, few teams would make up the ground that did the 2003 Confederation Chargers. The fact remains that the Val Caron school introduced football as a varsity sport just twelve months earlier, a move that coincided with the arrival of Kevin Ellsworth on staff (Confederation had fielded junior football entries from the late 1960s to sometime in the eighties, by all accounts).
Though he may have inherited some very gifted athletes, his was not a team laden with lifetime football fanatics. "We started this from the ground up," said Ellsworth, whose team would win their opener in 2002 and continue their growth to the point of upending the Lasalle Lancers 14-7 one year later, with the city banner on the line.
"Their football experience was watching the NFL on TV, or going home at lunch and playing Madden. That's how they learned the game." Well, that, and the guidance of a man who had already coached some 13 years in Brampton before moving to Sudbury, well after his own playing days were done.
"I put together, right at the start, a package of four to five pages of terminology, things as basic as positions, the concept of plays, what it meant if you were playing a 4/3 or a 4/4 defense," recalled Ellsworth, who would move on to Lo-Ellen and follow-up with city title runs in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
"It was magical, because those kids bought in so totally."
To wit, the arrival of the coaching staff on an early Monday morning for the start of training camp in year two would be met by a camped out Scott Kirkness, complete with his personal tent, having spent the previous night under the stars on the field at Confederation Secondary School, intent on being the first player at practice in 2003.
Throw in the passion of the likes of Kevin Oldfield and quarterback Shane Hutchison, kicker Scott Cliff and receiver Christian Majewsky, linemen Kyle Henri and Cory Bedard, and one has the makings of a crew that could pull the upset, on the frozen tundra of Cambrian College, all in a matter of just two years.******************************************************************************
For his part, former CFLer and graduate of the Cincinnati Bearcats NCAA program Mike Derks needed a little more patience as he attempted to steer the ship at Lasalle Secondary School. But when it all came together, in the dream season that was 2010, the Lancers simply could not be stopped.
"We got our first couple of wins and started to believe, and it became contagious," Derks recollected. "And then you get kids showing up to practice every day. We worked a lot on the fundamentals in practice, getting the footwork down, being in control of your body in space, knowing where to go."
The identity of that championship crew was forged largely on the three-headed running back monster that was the troika of Josh Cuomo, Scott Smith and Kenneth Bottrell. "You can't say enough about those running backs," said Derks.
"When teams started keying on Josh, we featured Scott. We could fake the ball into the line with Josh and he would draw two defenders to him and free up Scotty to get the corner. And then, after game four, we slipped Kenny back there in a triple backfield."
Defensively, the Lancers thrived on collective success, each and every player doing their part. "The fact that I am having a hard time remembering individual names really tells you the story of just how much of a group effort it was for us on defense," said Derks. "They all upped their game, they all came to practice, they all honed their skills."
And when push came to shove, a squad that placed the likes of Cody Lemieux, Albert Skippen, Kyle Kirby, Dustin Duffy, Matt Keech and Travis Perrin on the SDSSAA all-star teams (along with Smith and Cuomo) came together to stop Lo-Ellen 13-7, a score that might have been a little worse if not for the end of game sportsmanship exhibited by Derks and company.
"The one thing I remember about that final was that we got thanked by a few people for not punching the ball in from the one with less than a minute to play," said Derks. "When you launch 24 kids at one another, with a feeling of elation on one side and despair on the other, there's a chance that something stupid could happen."
"But we could kneel it out. That was the lesson that I wanted to teach my kids."***********************************************************************************
There would be no taking a knee for coach Paul Gauthier and his College Notre-Dame Alouettes one year earlier. It's hard to take a knee when both the semi-final and the final come right down to the wire.
Coming in as an underdog against a powerful St Charles College team in the semis, the CND lads benefitted from an absolute mud bowl, with Paul Cecile returning a fumble for a major in the opening few minutes of play.
"We knew that we could play with them, but when he recovered that fumble, that was a turning point," said Gauthier. Well that, and having the ability to improvise on a night that was far from ideal for football. "You always have your game plan ready, but when Mother Nature throws you a curve ball like that, you have to adjust," added the retired teacher and NFC Hall of Fame quarterback.
"We had to make sure that our boys were taking care of the football. Running backs, on a field like that, they have a hard time cutting quickly, so we knew that our guys were going to get hit."
In the end, it was a 29 yard field goal by Alex Carriere, in overtime that would propel Notre-Dame to the championship final against the Confederation Chargers. There, for a second straight week, both Alex Carriere and Mother Nature would play a huge role in the game.
"It was fourth down, on their 40 yard line, and we were tied 7-7," recalled Gauthier. "It was gale force winds that day. I told Alex to just kick the ball hard. If it goes through the end zone, we get a single point and we're in the lead with a minute and thirty to play."
"Well, he kicked it hard, but the thing never went more than fourteen feet off the ground - and the win just pushed it and pushed it and pushed it. The field goal that won the game was a 47 yarder, from a local high-schooler."
Hard to forget a moment like that.