Opening the season with a 41-6 road loss to the Toronto Raiders, coach Gord Goddard and the remainder of the Sudbury Spartans coaching staff understand that there is work ahead of the team.
But based on the positives that could be drawn from Saturday's encounter, they were also equally aware that the challenge ahead is a realistic one, with improvement expected in the foreseeable future.
"Overall, we're a young team and we made young team mistakes," Goddard said after the game. "Our special teams were horrible in the first half and they took advantage of it. I think the Raiders are a much-improved team over last year."
In fact, it was the athleticism of a few key Toronto weapons that posed the toughest test for the visitors as the Raiders racked up four touchdowns that covered 40 yards or more.
Throw in a Sudbury offensive unit that is still a week or two away from developing some much-needed crispness and timing, and the end result was not unpredictable.
The Raiders set the tone early, opening the scoring just 1:20 in as veteran Rickey Clarke turned a run outside, scampering 62 yards to put the homeside on the board.
"We gave up a lot of big plays and that sort of let the game get out of control a bit," Goddard noted. Before the end of the first quarter, Clarke was in the spotlight yet again, on the receiving end of a 40-yard strike from quarterback Kelly Hughes.
Touchdowns by Hughes (57-yard run) and Clarke (45-yard punt return) made the score 27-0 at the half, with Toronto extending it with the only score of the third quarter.
The Raiders added one final major, with fullback Myles Daly busting through from three yards out before Sudbury broke the goose-egg. Travis Campbell connected with James Howatt on a 35-yard pass and run play with 2:37 remaining, thwarting the Raiders attempt at the shutout.
"We buckled down a bit in the second half and we got a chance to play all of our players," Goddard said. "I'm expecting that with three starters in the defensive backfield back for next week, and bolstered by a couple of North Bay guys joining us, we are going to be much more competitive down the stretch. I think this will be our thinnest outing (roster-wise) this week."
Still, the Spartans did suit up some 35 players on the road, allowing Campbell to share time at quarterback with Jordan Cecchetto, with Eric Ethier handling the bulk of the touches at running back.
Unfortunately, the Spartans lost rookie back Josh Cuomo to a reoccurring hamstring injury that sidelined the former Lasalle star through much of the Gladiators season last summer.
With the collapse of the North Bay Bulldogs just days before the opening of the 2012 campaign, there is some question as to whether a possible revamped schedule would still see Sudbury travelling to the nation's capital next Saturday, preparing to face the Ottawa Imperials.
The good news, as noted by Goddard, is the fact that the folding of the Dogs will allow Sudbury to pick up the services of a few key defenders, including veteran Northern Football Conference (NFC) linebacker Randy Nodder.
The Spartans were set to open the home portion of the 2012 schedule on June 9 against North Bay. An updated league schedule is expected to be released some time this week.
Posted by Laurel Myers