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Nickel City Nostalgia: The fun and frolic of summer youth football in Sudbury

From 2003 through to the end of the summer of 2019, the summer football experience for high-school aged players in Sudbury has teetered, at various times.

And while it has been nothing short of fascinating to follow the three various incarnations of similarly-profiled programs in this area over that period of time, it would take the pandemic of 2020 to finally topple over the endeavour, at least for one year of competition.

The bulk of the current generation of would-be Junior Spartans were not even out of diapers when the Sudbury Northerners were first introduced to the marketplace, some 17 years ago, hitching their wagon to the OVFL (Ontario Varsity Football League) at that time.

Led by team president (whatever became of) Michael Davey and working with coaches Paul Schutt and Roger Sauve in the early going, the Northerners would have to wait until their season opening encounter in year three to register their first win. Rookie quarterback Jacob Gauthier, a backfield tandem of (future coach) Aaron Rehel and Eric Ethier, the defensive presence of Kevin Garbuio, and a game-winning field goal by Jamie Corkal combined to make a 24-21 win over the Oshawa Hawkeyes a moment to remember.

Still battling for a playoff spot during the summer of 2005, boasting a record of 3-4 and with the regular season nearing an end, the Northerners were forced to forfeit their victories after using an ineligible overage player from North Bay. Still, Garbuio would be honoured as the first Northerner to crack an OVFL all-star team, and by the time that John Larsen, Frank Rocca and John MacLean joined the coaching staff the following spring, there was a renewed sense of optimism.

With the likes of Jonathan Mikus, Dustin Crowder, Neil Petrin and Brett McKnight added to the fold, the Northerners still found themselves in pretty much every game, even if post-season play was not to be. An encouraging start to the 2007 campaign, one which would see the addition of a junior varsity team under the Northerners' umbrella, was completely soiled by mid-July, when the OVFL forced the squad to forfeit a game due to outstanding league fees at the time.

Turning over a new leaf with a brand new management team in place, entered in a different summer league altogether, the Sudbury Gladiators started setting a new course for the squad within the Ontario Football Conference (OFC), all while welcoming out of town imports Mike Drabit and Brian Babic, and local all-stars Josh Haslam, Jordan Assinewei, Zach Azzola and Austin Roy to the team that Frank Rocca would lead into action.

Though the pathway to the OFC playoffs was much easier to navigate than the OVFL alternative, a 41-29 semi-final loss to the Toronto Jr Argonauts helped to show glimpses of better days ahead.

Enter new head coach Brent Richer in 2009 and as impressive array of coaches, across the board, as the team had ever seen: Brandon Dougan, Geoff Richer, Reg Bonin, Sam Cuomo, Mike Fabiilli and Kevin White all lending a hand.

A core of talent that sees Joey Martellacci, Mark Randa, Erik Conrad, Mitch Portelance, Jeff Lavigne and others showing the way finds the Gladiators posting records on the positive side of the .500 mark, even if both 2009 and 2010 would find the locals felled in the OFC semi-finals, yet again.

In something of a Sudbury rarity, the Gladiators built the next few seasons with a shifty quarterback in Dan Poirier, behind a crew of linemen capable of imposing themselves physically, regardless of the opposition. Unfortunately, the summer of 2012 also would see the team suffer arguably the most difficult, heart-wrenching loss in franchise history, upset 27-12 by the Nipissing Wild, again in the quarter-finals, after running the table with an 8-0 record that summer.

"We enjoyed a very good regular season, with a lot of positives and a lot of firsts," said head coach Brent Richer at the year-end banquet. "And we are very, very proud of these guys and what they accomplished."

"But we've had a few weeks off and it still stings," he added.

With the Brent Richer era coming to an end, Reg Bonin grabbed the reins, just for one year, initially, returning the team to the post-season in 2014, following a one-year absence. Once again, the team is ousted in the playoffs, this time by the Huronia Stallions, the final scoreboard reading 37-13.

In fact, the only time the team advanced to the conference final, back in 2011, was due to a forfeited semi-final victory, as the Toronto Jr Argonauts chose not to make the post-season trek north with a heavily decimated lineup.

Defence was the calling card of the 2015 team that would see Aaron Rehel make his initial appearance as head coach. Names such as Joe Jelen, Eric Greene, Connor Mick, Miller Donnelly and Graeme Stevens were key to a squad that could keep games in reach, consistently holding their opponents to less than 20 points, even as they struggled to score that many themselves.

As the likes of Djuwa N'Galalumule, Josh Girolametto, Sean Antonioni and Jeremy Welsh all grew into ever-increasing roles, the Gladiators would battle their way right through to the OFC final in 2016, posting historic playoff wins over both the Toronto Jr Argonauts (15-6), as well as the Peterborough Wolverines (21-19).

Despite a setback of the hands of the Hamilton Varsity Jr Tiger Cats in the championship affair, the Sudbury lads could look back on a season of over-achievement, the opposite of which would hold true in 2017, as the promise of on-paper talent never really materialized the way that most expected.

A lopsided quarter-final win over Nipissing would be followed by a little retribution at the hands of the Peterborough representatives, as Rehel returned for one final summer, in 2018, closing out with a three-game winning streak to finish the season at 4-4.

To some extent, it might seem that 2019 marked the completion of a full circle for the program. Just over a month after a lack of numbers forced the Gladiators to announce a leave of absence for the franchise came the news that the Sudbury Spartans would step in and sponsor a JV entry in the OFC last summer.

With Reg Bonin back at the helm, the team surprised in year one, earning a playoff berth in their inaugural appearance. That element of success spelled a certain level of optimism over the winter that ensued, optimism that was extinguished just over a month ago, when news that the 2020 campaign was not to be, was broken.

Mind you, in the topsy-turvy world that is summer football in Sudbury, nothing should surprise us.

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