The year was 1968 and Sudbury youth rep soccer was enjoying a spectacular rise to prominence on a provincial setting.
Spearheaded largely by the efforts of Dr Ricardo de la Riva, the local landscape for the beautiful game was welcoming the introduction of a whole new level of soccer, catering to those athletes 16 years of age and younger, in an environment where the bulk of all previous focus was concentrated on the men's adult game.
Simply put, de la Riva and his cohorts in these parts were well ahead of the curve. The results would speak for themselves. No less than four Sudbury-based entries had worked their way through to the semi-final round of Ontario Cup play.
The Falcons mosquitos, paced by the likes of Roy Gallo, Eugene D'Orazio and Gino Contini, had survived overtime drama against a pair of opponents from Scarboro, eventually claiming the provincial title before falling to the Montreal Rangers in the Eastern Canadian match-up at Queen's Athletic Field.
The Sudbury Police bantams downed the Hamilton Rangers 3-1 in the quarter-finals, before being bounced to the sidelines one step short of the championship affair. Meanwhile, the Peewee division was easily distinguishing itself the most.
Home to four solid entries on a local setting, the grouping produced a pair of teams advancing to the semis, when coach Ann Primeau helped rally her Richelieu Club troops to a 3-1 quarter-final win over Niagara Falls, setting up an all-Sudbury battle in the final four. But when the dust eventually settled, it was the Sudbury Steelworkers Local 6500 peewees who would boast the most impressive resume.
After stopping Richelieu Club 3-1, the youngsters edged the York Rangers 2-1, on the road, in penalty kicks, to claim the Ontario banner. The team then capped off their incredible run, besting the Montreal Rosemount boys in a titanic tilt, once again at Queen's, with hundreds of local soccer faithful in attendance.
The final destination was somewhat improbable for freshman head coach Frank Doni, aided by his brother Carmine, tackling the reins of the team before he had even celebrated his 20th birthday. “We were playing local soccer and Dr de la Riva approached me, said that he had a bunch of kids and that he thought there was a lot of potential there,” said Doni recently, enjoying a walk down memory lane.
“That's how we got started. I never had any coaching experience before, we (the coaches) were very young.” Where the point of entry into competitive youth soccer in 2018 can be easily located in pretty much any community across the country, such was not the case five decades ago. The notion of kids competing beyond their own playground gathering was only beginning to gather momentum.
“Emilio Pressacco recruited the kids from Gatchell, Dr de la Riva recruited the kids from the West End,” said Doni. “He had a dream of a winning team. We put that team together with one goal: to do well.”
That, of course, can be said for hundreds, if not thousands, of folks who work on assembling young talent in any number of different sports. Very seldom does the end result match the initial vision, at least not when it comes to the wildest possible dreams imaginable. But that was exactly the kind of summer the 12 year old Sudbury boys enjoyed.
“They were so talented,” recalled Doni of his troops. “They were beyond their age in both soccer skills and maturity. Everything just clicked because the kids got along so well. The other thing about those kids is that they were prepared to work.”
“We tried to locate our practices halfway – some of the kids were biking to practices – at either Wembley Public School or Princess Anne,” Doni continued. “If we could get Queen's, we would – but it was the only true soccer field back then, and it was impossible to get.”
“These kids wanted to practice every day. The times when I couldn't be there with them, they would just go our on their own. They were unbelievably dedicated. I never saw that with another group of kids for the rest of my life.”
While Doni will minimize any huge impact he had as a coach, he was willing to concede that a slight twist in strategy, formed largely out of his own experience as a player, may have helped the Steelworkers at some point in their journey.
“I played fullback, but I always wanted to rush,” he reminisced. “At that time, though, when you were fullback, you never went past center field. You were not allowed to do that. We had two excellent defenders, so I thought why not let them attack.”
“Our fullbacks were taking corner kicks and we crowded the middle a lot more than most teams were doing. That may have helped us catch some of the teams a little bit by surprise, because nobody did that before.”
Needless to say, the Steelworkers' peewee soccer crew received plenty of attention, locally, with regular media reports and an acknowledgment of their accomplishments before council, later in the year. In fact, a report in a summer of '69 edition of the Sudbury Star helped to put the work being done on a local level into perspective for those who would look back fifty years later.
Following is an excerpt from a story regarding a top-end tournament hosted a year later, following the success of the peewee division in the summer of '68. “Sudbury is able to field three teams since soccer is a growing sport among local boys in the summer. Once upon a time, soccer was for the off-spring of recently immigrated Europeans. Not so now.”
“(Frank) Doni credits de la Riva with being the father of modern soccer in Sudbury for the young people.”
The 1968 Sudbury Peewee Steelworkers featured a roster of John Manarin, Luciano Pascoli, Severino D'Agostino, Dino Cacciotti, Frank Anzil, Peter Cundari, Vince Fabiilli, Jackie Tessarrolo, Dominic Pillarella, Graziano Pressacco, Michael Petrone, Mike Smith, Renato Pessot, Chris Gantley, Pat Sicnocotti, Eugene Bartolotto and Danny Gallo.