Facing an under-manned Sarnia Imperials team Saturday night at the James Jerome Sports Complex, the Sudbury Spartans were not about to take their foot off the gas.
Good thing, too.
While the visiting Imperials came to town only 18 players strong, their top-end athleticism kept this contest in doubt until well into the fourth quarter. In fact, it was only after running back Scott Smith reached the end zone with under two minutes to play that the Spartans faithful seemed comfortable, as the homeside chalked up a 26-16 win.
Alternating between quarterbacks Pat Wright and Ricky Gorton in the early going, the Imperials kept the Spartans off-balance, with the Sudbury offence limited to just one three and out possession in quarter one.
Thankfully, while their opponents moved the ball well, they came away empty-handed on the scoreboard until early in quarter two, striking for a field goal. The missed opportunities proved costly as the Spartans rallied, taking the lead for good when defensive lineman Joe Shyminsky blocked a Sarnia punt deep in Imperials' territory, recovering the ball in the end zone.
Sarnia would be forced to punt on their next possession, and speedy returner Justin Poirier made them pay, scampering 75 yards the other way as Sudbury opened up a 13-3 lead.
Despite signs of fatigue, the Imperials capitalized late in the half. Just three plays after Ryan Lousbery stepped in front of a Travis Campbell pass, the talented athlete was on the end of a 45-yard strike from Sarnia QB Pat Wright, setting up first and goal from the four.
From there, it was the Wright-Gorton tandem going to work as Sarnia closed the gap to 13-10.
Coming back from the halftime break, Sudbury wasted precious little time getting that one back as Campbell found speedster Nick Micelotta over the middle.
The former St. Charles Cardinal easily outraced the Imperials 68 yards for the major, with Sudbury failing to convert for a second time this game. But just when it looked like depleted numbers might be the death knell of the visitors, Julian Shadd Gentry came to life, registering runs of 20, 11 and finally 19 yards for a touchdown as the Imperials made it a three-point game (19-16).
That was still the score late in the fourth when Campbell came through with key completions to Dave St. Amour (15 yds) and Dustin Crowder (26), putting the ball on the Sarnia 15.
Though Josh Cuomo was the work horse most of the evening in the Spartans' backfield, coach Junior Labrosse called on the fresh legs of Scott Smith to seal the victory as the Spartans improved their season to 3-3, a notable improvement over recent years.
Part of the reason for that success is increased attendance at practice, coupled with an injection of youth. Now in his third year with the team, linebacker Andrew Gillis admits the jump from both high school and OFC football to the NFC can take a while to figure out.
"When I first started playing, there was a lot of reckless abandon," said Gillis. "You didn't know what you were doing. You were just going and trying to make something happen. Now, as the years start piling up, you start to 'get' the game more, to understand what offences are doing."
While the Spartans have yet to see a large flow of annual talent from the Sudbury Gladiators program, Gillis is emphatic in his decision to keep playing.
"I'm still in Sudbury all year round and I love the game of football, so why not keep playing," he said.
"I have an opportunity here, so why not until I can't anymore."
The Spartans are back at home again this coming Saturday, facing the Tri-City Outlaws at 7:15 p.m. on the turf at James Jerome.