Welcome to the year-end banquet for the 2012 Sudbury Gladiators.
"We enjoyed a very good regular season, with a lot of positives and a lot of firsts," head coach Brent Richer said. "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."
The Gladiators soared to the top of the Ontario Football Conference (OFC) standings this past summer, systematically recording eight straight regular season wins.
Unfortunately, a first-round playoff upset at the hands of the 3-5 Nipissing Wild took some of the lustre off what was otherwise an excessively memorable summer football campaign.
"It's still hard to take, but it wasn't because we laid down and died," Richer insisted.
Still, the second-guessing is ongoing, throughout all levels of the organization, including a head coach who visualizes many more years of involvement in a game he loves.
"As a coaching staff, that's the first place you go," Richer said. "When you lose, you start to think ... 'maybe the outcome' could have been different.'"
That said, Richer was not about to sell short the efforts of their northern rivals, providing a tip of the hat to the Wild, which went toe-to-toe with the Huronia Stallions in the conference final, falling 36-29 in the end.
"Clearly something that coach (Matt) Gordon did really worked for them," Richer said. "They were seven points away from going to the provincial championship. They peaked at absolutely the right time."
If there is any concern the effects of the loss will linger throughout the winter, the reason for optimism lies only a few months ahead.
"We are very excited for next year," Richer said. "We have 40 guys returning from this roster — the base is there."
But he also said he's "going to miss guys I've worked with very closely these past three years."
"Danny (Poirier), Ian Thomson, and not to exclude anyone. After the game, we couldn't even say words to each other."
The type of success the Gladiators achieved is simply not possible without the joint efforts of multiple players, all pulling in the same direction. The season that defensive back Eric Donaldson enjoyed might have been as unheralded as any other player on the team.
Yet come season's end, it was the Lo-Ellen Knights' product sitting atop the standings in terms of defensive points. With a number of years of football involvement behind him, Donaldson looks back on a team that he acknowledged was special.
"The level of intensity that was brought to practices and games," Donaldson said. "Everybody knew what they had to do and we executed well."
Ironically, the hard-hitting defender started his career at Lo-Ellen on the opposite side of the ball, accepting a move to the defensive side on the urging of head coach Kevin Ellsworth.
"He said I had more of a defensive mindset in the game and I agreed with him," Donaldson said.
Like all of his teammates, the Lo-Ellen senior still deals with the pain of a loss they never expected to suffer, though a fifth and final year of high school football provides the basis from which to move forward.
"It helps you not to look back," Donaldson said. "You focus on the next game, the next practice, trying to keep getting better."
That mindset is shared by many of the young men who attended the festivities earlier this week at the Sudbury Curling Club, including Junior Varsity Gladiators defensive lineman Eric Fraser. He was recognized as a co-winner of his team's Gladiator of the Year Award, along with with Jesse Brear.
"My mindset on the game has improved a lot, I'm a lot more into it," Fraser said. He is completing his second year with the junior squad, with one more season of summer junior eligibility remaining.
A lopsided season-ending playoff loss to Burlington did little to diminish the many positives that Fraser and his mates took away from their four-month commitment to summer ball, including one particularly memorable outing.
"The game in Barrie against Huronia when I had 11 tackles," Fraser said. "I had the greatest time ever."
Though he tended to focus entirely on his role as a defensive lineman with the Junior Gladiators, he is expecting to see time on both sides of the line when he returns to the field with the Lasalle Lancers later this month.
Crossing back to offence, Fraser conceded a shift in his approach was needed.
"You have to try being a little bit less aggressive sometimes," he said. "But playing D-line, I know all of the moves my opponent is likely to make, so that helps a lot."
The year-end banquet provided the Gladiators organization with an opportunity to dole out the hardware, recognizing a total of 11 players in all.
Sudbury Gladiators - Year-End Award Winners
Special Teams Player of the Year - Travis Perrin
Offensive MVP - Dan Poirier
Defensive MVP - Ian Thomson
Team MVP - Dan Poirier
Lineman of the Year - Spencer Dailey
Gladiator of the Year - Eric Donaldson
Sudbury Junior Gladiators - Year-End Award Winners
Special Teams Player of the Year - Matteo Vigna
Offensive MVP - Hunter Holub
Defensive MVP - Connor Mick
Team MVP - Hunter Holub
Lineman of the Year - Josh Stamplecoski
Gladiator of the Year - Eric Fraser; Jesse Brear