Sure signs of early November in Sudbury: the first real snowfall of the winter (thank you, Mother Nature, for that), way too early for Christmas music blaring in certain retail outlets and, every year or two, a Sudbury NOSSA senior football final loss to a team representing Sault Ste Marie.
As the Lo-Ellen Park Knights prepare to make the trek west along Highway 17 Saturday to tackle the St Mary’s Knights, they do so armed with the knowledge that the last SDSSAA team to hoist the banner they so covet would be the St Charles College Cardinals.
The 1969 edition of the St Charles College Cardinals – to be precise.
It’s been more than fifty years since the dreaded NOSSA curse began and while some have come close to snapping the skid, especially in the decade or two that immediately succeeded the hard fought SCC win in the year of the year of the lunar landing, none have broken through.
“As a player, I played in two (NOSSA finals vs SSM),” recalled Cardinal linebacking legend and long-time coach Mike Fabiilli. “In grade 13, we were losing 6-1 to St Mary’s and we had a first down on their one yard line with about four minutes left in the game.
We ended up fumbling the ball and losing 6-3.”
Sometimes, it must seem like it’s simply not meant to be.
“It’s not like in the NFL where you have 15 footballs to choose from and they’re always dry,” Fabiilli later added. “When we fumbled, we had probably played with that same ball all game. It probably weighed 25 pounds.”
Once his playing days were done, the member of the Ottawa Gee Gees Football Hall of Fame returned home to both teach and coach at St Charles College, giving it several more shots as the Cardinals would lay claim to nine more city crowns between 1989 and 2001.
“I think of the 1991 NOSSA where we lost 14-13 to Bawating,” said Fabiilli. “We had a very good team and were winning 13-6 at half time. It was a muddy game and we just couldn’t get that extra touchdown.”
“I think there were times in the 1980s and 1990s that it was just a bad break or something. They weren’t any better or bigger than us.”
That said, since the turn of the millennium, few have been the times when the Nickel City v Lock City matchup has been all that close, even heading into the final quarter. The likes of Korah, Superior Heights, St Mary’s and their predecessors have done a whole lot of things right to enjoy this kind of long lasting dominance.
“Everything has to go your way, including turnovers – and you can’t make mistakes,” said Fabiilli. “You have to play good defense and have to be able to control the ball.”
Generally speaking, that final part – controlling the ball – has proved challenging, most often due to a basic physical discrepancy at the line of scrimmage between these two northern rivals.
Whether that gap in size can be credited to simply fewer high-schools in Sault Ste Marie and therefore a larger pool of talent to select from (add in no boys volleyball to draw away other elite athletes as well), or whether there is simply something in the waters of the St Mary’s River (tongue in cheek), or some other factors altogether at play is open to debate.
But there is no denying that the St Benedict Bears run of 2006 - 2007 (they would be upset by Lo-Ellen in 2008) was as well matched, on paper, as any Sudbury team since then. Given the dynasty would come under the watch of former CFL lineman Frank Rocca and company, it should come as no surprise that the Bears fared well in the trenches.
“When you can compete with them on the line of scrimmage, then you have abilities elsewhere,” said Rocca, whose teams actually fell twice in semi-final matchups to St Mary’s College, humbled 73-0 in 2006 before staging by far one of the most competitive local showings in the past quarter century, on the wrong side of a 52-34 loss at Queen’s Athletic Field a year later.
“Across the offensive and defensive lines, if you can’t matchup somewhat close, the rest is really tough,” suggested Rocca. “It’s just so pivotal.”
Looking back, the knowledgeable football man who returned to the coaching ranks of the Joe MacDonald Youth Football League in recent years suggested that the lopsided setback actually helped galvanize the team mindset for the next 12 months. “Do you know how many guys took that loss to heart, how many guys showed up in the weight room the very next week?” asked Rocca, rhetorically.
“They all bought in after that.”
And like Fabiilli, Rocca was quick to acknowledge the efforts of the folks on the opposing sidelines, coaches who might number a dozen or so come Saturday. “They’ve been doing good things for a long, long time,” he noted. “They’ve all bought in and everybody does what’s best for the kids.”
While he was among the most well-tenured coaches in the local senior high-school football scene, Northern Football Conference Hall of Fame quarterback Paul Gauthier enjoyed only one shot at a NOSSA championship (2009) while at the helm of the Collège Notre-Dame Alouettes, eliminated in the semis in the Soo in both 1994 and 1998.
And, like most from these parts, it did not go well.
“We knew that the Soo was a very strong team,” said Gauthier, recalling the 2009 campaign in which the Als edged the Confederation Chargers 10-7 on a game-winning field goal from Alex Carriere on the very last play of the game to earn the SDSSAA bid. “I knew that I did not have a lot of fifth year players, so we tried to get ready as best as we could.”
“We went down there and it seemed like we were playing against 48 grade 13 guys – and they were freaking good. We were 16, 17 and 18 year-olds playing a whole bunch of 19 year-olds.”
Some of the trademark Sault Ste Marie efficiency stuck with Gauthier, even many years later.
“They never went into the huddle,” he said. “After every play, they were right back up to the line of scrimmage and two coaches were giving signals from the bench. Then they would turn around and run plays. It was pretty nice to see.”
“The kids in the Soo just live and breathe football, I guess.”
That, however, also holds true for a large majority of the Lo-Ellen Park Knights’ delegation that will look to end the curse on Saturday. Suffice to say, Sudbury is pulling for you.