Youth movement for Spartans
By BRUCE HEIDMAN, THE SUDBURY STAR | April 23, 2012
You couldn't wipe the smile off Gord Goddard's face.
The sun was shining, the breeze carrying the chill of spring as it swept over the field at James Jerome, while young men grouped off all about the playing surface worked out the winter kinks.
It was the day Goddard had been looking forward to all winter as the Sudbury Spartans began its first day of training camp Sunday with a host of new, hungry players set to wear the silver and blue.
Which made Goddard's smile even broader. Last season, the Spartans returned from years of inactivity to rekindle the Northern Football Conference team, a host of former players returning to the fold to breath life into the team, storied hall of famers such as Paul Gauthier and Dave St. Amour returning to the game of their youth to play one more season and, more importantly, help get the team back on its feet.
From the look of the first day of training camp, it worked. Few of the returned veterans remained, with a slew of fresh-faced, eager youngsters taking their place.
"Our numbers are solid for our first day of camp," Goddard said. "We have just under 30 players here with a lot of new blood that has played football before, and this is the camp we wanted to see. Decent numbers and new blood with players who have played the game with different organizations before."
Several of those new faces are graduates from the Sudbury Gladiators junior squad.
"There are quite a number from the Gladiators here and we are beginning to reap the benefits of that program now," Goddard said. "They know what the program is about and they came to watch our games and we have kids here who have played summer ball since 14 or 15 years of age now into their 20s and that was on purpose. They know what the committment is to play summer ball with practice three or four times a week and they are used to it and it is part of their life now when they get to our level. The coaching at the Gladiators has been second to none and we are reaping the benefits of that, too."
While it's a young group, they know their football.
"We are back to basics, but we are already working on installing our offence and our defence," Goddard said. "Because they have already played football, they understand what needs to be done. They have to learn the new language though because it is different than the Gladiators, but they have strong fundamentals and understand the game."
Wide receiver James Howatt, 21 and a Laurentian University student, is one of those energetic young players who is looking forward to playing a bigger role this season compared to his rookie campaign last year.
"It's new blood, new players and lots of fun," he said. "We have a lot of new talent on the team on the O-line, wide receiver, new running backs, just lots of new talent. We want to win."
Howatt is grateful to those veterans who returned to the team last season and taught him plenty in his rookie season, but he said the youth movement is ready to take over.
"It's really cool," he said. "We learned a lot from those veterans last year and it's our turn to take hold of the team this year and play ball. It's important for us to blossom as a team in this city and keep this team going and moving forward."
Howatt has already noticed a difference from last season's training camp opener.
"It's more energetic and high-paced," he said.
"It's fun to have all your friends out and not a lot of 50 year olds out there," he added with a laugh.
With so many veterans pencilled into a starting spot gone, a new pecking order will be set at training camp.
"You have to be here at every practice and learn the new plays and work hard to earn your spot," Howatt said. "There are a lot of young guys, so you have to assert yourself as a starter and make sure you are on top of everything because I am sure everybody out here wants to start."
One of the few returning veteran players is Brandon Dougan. The wide receiver said he has at least one more season in him.
"Feels like spring," Dougan said with a wide grin while preseason drills raged all around him. "I love coming out here. It's good exercise, good for your health and good for the mind and body. Seeing all the new guys coming out, it's good for the team, good for the city.
"It's been great for the first day," he added. "The new guys fit in right away, we are able to do everything right away because they know football and it makes it easy.
Dougan has also enjoyed the injection of youth on the squad.
"It's nice to be out here among all these young guys," he said. "It makes you feel younger than you are."
Most of all, the players are just happy to be back on the gridiron.
"It feels great to be out here playing ball," Howatt said. "I've been thinking about it since last year when we lost to the Sault in the quarters. I can't wait for the season to start."
The Spartans open the NFC season May 26 when they face the Raiders in Toronto. Sudbury's home-opener is set for June 9 when the locals host the North Bay Bulldogs at Queen's Athletic Field at 7 p.m.