By Keith Lacey
The Sudbury Spartans hope to continue their climb from pigskin purgatory to gridiron greatness during their 50th year anniversary in the Northern Football Conference (NFC).
The Spartans kick off their 2002 season with a road game in Markham Saturday night. The home opener takes place a week later, June 8 at QueenÂ?s Athletic Field, against North Bay.
After a solid 3-5 season in 2001Â?solid when you consider the Spartans suffered through several terrible seasons in successionÂ?head coach Paddy Walsh is confident his team is moving closer and closer to the upper echelon of the NFC.
The Spartans are, after all, the most decorated team in NFC history, winning 12 championships in the 27 seasons the legendary coach Sid Forster was in control.
After ForsterÂ?s death almost eight years ago, the team fell on very tough times, but last season was a giant step in the right direction and Walsh predicts even more success this coming season.
Â?The goals heading into the season are to finish at least .500 and that will definitely get us into the playoffs,Â? said Walsh, heading into his second year as a player-coach.
Â?If we could secure a home playoff date that would just be fantastic. If we stay healthy, I think thatÂ?s a realistic goal and we can do it.Â?
Not only did the Spartans struggle throughout the late 1990s, but so did the league, which dropped at one point to only four teams.
However, like the Spartans, the NFC is on the rebound. Last year there were nine teams, and this year there will be 10 with the addition of a new team from Milton.
Returning teams include Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Oshawa, Belleville, Mississauga, Mega-City (Greater Toronto Area), Markham and the nine-time defending champion Oakville Longhorns.
Walsh is very happy the Spartans have attracted a nice mix of veterans and numerous talented rookies, almost all who have played the past several seasons in the Joe MacDonald Youth Football League.
Â?You need the young guys to come in and be excited, and we have that this year,Â? said Walsh. Â?IÂ?d say the team is pretty well split between veterans and rookies and thatÂ?s a nice mix.Â?
Walsh has managed to sign 40 players for the season.
On offence, Walsh will be looking at veteran quarterback Reg Bonin to lead the way and continue last seasonÂ?s success with the short passing game. Backup QB Jordan Cecchetto has come a long way and will get lots of playing time this season, said Walsh.
Receivers Jason Arnold and Aaron Roseneck are both huge young men and present a nice target for the quarterbacks, he said.
Running back J.G. McKnight will be joined in the back field by a committee of three fullbacks, who will all share playing time, he said.
The defence will be anchored, once again, by middle linebacker J.P. Pigeon, noseguard Kevin White and defensive backs Chris Bowes and Junior Labrosse, said Walsh.
Â?I like our defenceÂ?weÂ?ve got a good line and very good core of coverage guys,Â? he said.
The offensive line is a bit thin and thatÂ?s why Walsh is returning as a player-coach and not just coach.
Â?Because of numbers IÂ?m going to play again,Â? he said. Â?I didnÂ?t want to last year, but I did play and had a good time.Â?
The home opener on June 8 is an alumni game. Walsh hopes all former players will show up to cheer on the 2002 squad.
If talented young players continue to commit to the Spartans program, the older guys are going to stick around and itÂ?s only going to take one or two more seasons before the Spartans return to their glory days, said Walsh.
Â?I see a big improvement this season,Â? he said. Â?WeÂ?re only a year or two away from being right near the top again.Â?
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