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An unlikely Bears duo heads off to join the Mounties

One would not be altogether wrong to think of the St Benedict Bears football tandem of Elliott Robinson and Adam Rocha as something of an "odd couple" - and it runs much deeper than the mere fact they play on completely opposite sides of the ball.

The pathways they travelled in their pursuit of post-secondary football dreams could not have been more different, though they both, ultimately, reached the same final destination.

Last week, both SDSSAA all-stars signed their commitment letters to the Mount Allison Mounties, set to join the Sackville (New Brunswick) based gridiron program come August of 2020.

Of the two, Robinson was far more the late bloomer. "In grade nine, I didn't think I was going to play football (beyond high-school)," he said. "Undersized and unathletic, I didn't think I would go anywhere."

Injured in his first week of practice, Robinson would enjoy a healthy growth spurt in grade 10, and by the time grade 12 rolled around, the confidence had grown substantially, a bi-product of putting himself through the rigours of regular practice sessions with the Sudbury Spartans in the summer.

"It helped me to play against people that had really good technique," he said. "In high-school, and this is not faulting anyone, but you don't play against people that have been playing since they were eight (years old), and are now thirty."

"It's tough, getting beat, every play, even in practice," Robinson added. "But that one rep that I won, I could learn from it, grow from it, become better the next practice, and so on and so on."

That constant push for pefection will be key, as Robinson seeks to translate his skills as a top defensive end in Sudbury, to finding some playing time on a defensive line that features men, not boys.

"At this point, it's learning to use my size, learning to use my arm reach," he said. "If I can create separation with my arms, I can be unstoppable. It's more about technique, more than size. Technique can win any battle."

"He came in as a short little chubby grade nine kid - and then came the growth spurt," recalled St Benedict head coach Junior Labrosse. "But he was always that kid, after practice, who was running forties, hitting the sled."

"He was always working on his technique."

Where Elliott Robinson gradually grew into a U Sport level prospect, quarterback Adam Rocha seemed destined to strive to reach that goal, even before reaching high-school. At the age of 16, he cracked the Team Ontario roster, something of a northern Ontario rarity, at that position.

The truth is that all eyes have been on Adam Rocha for the past couple of years, forcing the well-spoken young man to adapt. "I think it was evident what the hardest part was at the beginning of this year's high-school football season," said Rocha, who had earned summer playing time with the Spartans in the NFC, before coming back to the Bears.

"You're expected to be this great player. There is a lot of pressure. When you have a bad game, you can get in your own head really quick. After that second game versus Lo-Ellen, I had to flush everything."

To the credit of both Rocha and the Bears, the team recalibrated nicely and were clearly the class of the league, from that point on. It was a valuable lesson for the 6'4" 18 year old pivot.

Now, he returns to the role where he has historically raised the most eye-brows, with very little in the way of expectations for a freshman quarterback coming into university, especially one from Sudbury.

"I love competing, I love fighting for every rep, fighting for every spot," he said. "Going down to Team Ontario, I was the underdog there too, going against guys they already knew. Here I am, just a big kid from Sudbury that can throw a ball decently well."

If his time with the Bears, the Spartans and the Sudbury Gladiators has taught him anything, Rocha knows to remain true to himself. "I feel, going into Mount Allison, there will be reality checks, at points, but I feel that I have to stay confident and work my tail off," he said.

"It's just confidence for me. I feel that when I play with confidence, it's really hard to stop. Even if someone is better than me, I will still feel like I've got them." Like Robinson, Rocha will undoubtedly benefit from his time spent staring down NFC defensive units, especially those of the teams in the top half of the league.

"You can't hesitate, you have to trust your decision making," he said. "When we played the GTA, I couldn't think. I had to make my pre-read snap, see what they were doing and throw. Don't think about throwing, just throw."

"And if I didn't, it was turning out to be a pick. Hitting it fast, hitting it early, throwing the curl before they look." This was just the kind of talk that coach Labrosse appreciated, even if he made a point not to treat his NFC rookie with kid gloves, in the least.

"In Adam's case, the drive was there, right from the beginning," said Labrosse. "We would have conversations at lunch, in the halls, even after football practice. He plays the game to always try and get better."

"He's very hard on himself, but he's got a very good football IQ. That was maybe the most challenging part with Adam. He had to learn to trust the system. That has developed a lot more, especially after playing Spartans last summer."

"He will be able to sit down with the coaches and let them know what he's seeing. I really think the coaches there are going to love working with him."

While Labrosse has seen many who have gone before, including local high-school products Ben Campbell (St Benedict) and Graeme Stevens (Lo-Ellen), who both enjoyed playing time last year with the Mounties, the NFC Hall of Famer, as a player, is more than comfortable with what he is now handing over to Mount Allison personnel.

These guys are well prepared mentally, academically, they're going to be fine," said Labrosse. "Mount Allison is getting two great kids."

Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League