According to Sudbury Varsity Gladiators head coach Reg Bonin, the team's semifinal encounter Saturday evening in Barrie might have turned out much differently if not for a particularly bad sequence of plays in the second quarter.
Of course, it also might not have changed the outcome at all.
The Huronia Stallions advanced to the conference final by virtue of a 37-13 victory over the Gladiators, after knocking off the Sudburians 45-1 in league play earlier this summer.
Still, the local players seemed convinced, as recently as their Friday night practice, that this was a game that could be won.
"It looked to me like the kids were very confident," said Bonin of his team's mindset as they hit the field in Barrie.
"This was the sharpest they looked going into a game, in terms of being focused, how they went through the warmup. I liked how the guys prepared before the game."
Unfortunately, a bad break cost the Gladiators early, when a batted ball on a pass from Hunter Holub was intercepted, giving Huronia a first down inside the five.
They converted on the very next play.
Undeterred, the visitors answered.
"I loved the way we came out right after the interception," noted Bonin. "We took it right back to them and marched."
A drive that covered at least a dozen plays was culminated when Holub found wide receiver August Danyluk with a game-tying TD pass, leaving the teams locked at 7-7 late in the first quarter.
While Huronia scored again on their next possession to regain the lead, it was the chain of events that followed that proved particularly costly to Bonin and company. A mishandled kickoff put Sudbury on their heels, starting deep in their territory.
After moving the chains twice, the Gladiators were forced to punt, a particular area of their game this year that has presented some challenges in almost every encounter. With the correct call not making its way to the huddle, the Gladiators attempted a fake punt, in error, and the Stallions were not about to relent when presented with a short field yet again.
"There was some miscommunication on that call," said Bonin. "I'll take full responsibility for that one. But to fall behind 14 points to a good team like that is hard to come back from."
In fact, the second Gladiators' score did not come until late in the fourth quarter when Austin Kirkey found the end zone after a long run. All in all, a 5-2-1 season combined with a first-round playoff loss would hardly be considered disappointing, given the amount of turnover the Sudbury crew endured entering the 2014 campaign.
Never one to avoid looking in the mirror, Bonin maintains the learning curve is never-ending, both as players and coaches.
"You have to self-evaluate, to look at what went well and what didn't go well, how you might do things differently," he said.
"At the end of the day, football is football. It comes down to blocking and tackling, throwing and catching the ball. That part of it wasn't that much of a surprise. Dealing with all of the personalities proved to be a lot more challenging than I thought it would be," he added.
While the always-grounded teacher fully expected a change from the high school environment to the summer football experience, there were some key "notes to self" that would emerge by the time that late July would roll along.
"A season in the Ontario Football Conference is a significantly longer stretch that has to be worked through," Bonin said. "A challenge for a coach, when it comes to dealing with a longer season, is trying to find a way to engage the kids, keeping the kids motivated for a longer period of time."
The Gladiators will graduate roughly a dozen players this year, with the likes of Bauer Negrych, Devyn Chenier and August Danyluk among those who hope to make the jump to CIS playing time in the fall.
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