Saints look to step up in city football

Eastern Commerce Collegiate is looking to do whatever it takes to win in just its third football season.

The Saints participated in a “pre-season rodeo” scrimmage jamboree at Downsview Park on Friday, where schools were able to run scrimmages against other teams from around the GTA.

Coach Sean Henderson said it was a great opportunity for the Saints to tune up before the regular season as they prepare to make the jump from the varsity development level to tier two.

“Just being able to see where your strengths and weaknesses are against other teams really helps,” Henderson told the Toronto Observer. “There are definitely some things I realized today that we haven’t practiced enough with.”

Left outside linebacker Justin Benjamin believes the event gave the team a proper pre-season, as opposed to last year when they went into the regular schedule unprepared.

“This is like filling out where we need to put people such as the new guys and where they’re suited,” Benjamin said. “I like this a lot better than last year because during our first game, we weren’t ready and we lost.

“Now we’ll be ready.”

The Saints football program dates back to 1926 but folded in 1979. Henderson, who played safety for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, saw how much football had changed him as a person and took the initiative to bring the program back.

Eastern Commerce partnered with Monarch Park Collegiate and with some help from the Toronto Argos’ Level the Playing Field program, the two schools were able to play.

Henderson said a lot of people were down on the program after the team lost all of their games in the first year but he encouraged his players to continue.

“When we started this program three years ago, this was the year we were building to,” Henderson said. “I told them if they stuck with it, they’d have a lot of success further down the line.”

The Saints improved to a 4-1 record in 2010 and although they lost to Danforth Collegiate in the semi-finals, Henderson has seen his team take giant steps forward.

“It’s come so far and now we have a full team,” Henderson said. “At the beginning we were a little rag-tagged and I tell them we’re no longer a football team, we’re now a football program.”

Monarch Park’s Jeremy Ambraska has been the team’s starting quarterback since the program returned and credits the team’s success to actually having committed players showing up on a regular basis.

“We don’t have to beg for them to be at practice anymore, they want to be here,” Ambraska said. “With guys coming out consistently, we can move forward as a team faster. Our football IQ is higher this year. “

Henderson said his quarterback is the main reason why the team has been a success on the field.

“He’s incredibly keen and always bugging me about new things we can do and new plays we can try,” Henderson said. “Having a student who’s not only your best player but also a great person who is a leader is really important.”

He also praised Benjamin’s drive to step up and lead the defence as key.

“Some people just take to football right away and Justin is one of those students who knew football was for him,” Henderson said. “He’s there every practice and is enthusiastic about taking a leadership role on the defence and that’s what you look for in students.”

Benjamin relishes his new role in just his second year with the team and described the Saints not as a team but as a family.

“We haven’t even started our regular season yet and it already feels a lot better than last year,” Benjamin said. “We’re all bonding together so much faster now.”