The Northern Secondary School Red Knights have a football tradition steeped in winning.
Head coach Dan Dominico can’t recall the last time his seniors lost a regular-season contest – he estimates it’s been eight or nine years.
But abruptly, after claiming the 2008 city title, and reaching the 2009 final, his team hit a wall last season, falling in Round 1 of the playoffs to a lower-seeded Central Tech squad.
“My starting quarterback and running back were injured, but that’s not an excuse; they plainly beat us,” Dominico told the Toronto Observer during practice on Tuesday at Northern. “That was the first time we’ve lost in the first round of the playoffs in many years.”
A week away from kickoff, Dominico and his staff aren’t dwelling on the past. He’s back on the field with some returning players and several new faces, commanding with a fresh mentality.
“The season starts now,” said Dominico when talking to his team about the importance of focus during practice sessions.
In the coach’s mind a lack of concentration certainly factored into last year’s disappointing finish.
In the pre-practice huddle, Dominico uses a specific player to demonstrate what qualifies as dress-code violation, and thoroughly outlines what is expected from his players daily on Clarke Pulford Field.
At Northern – a 1,800-student high school in the Eglinton Ave. East and Mount Pleasant Rd. neighborhood – the Red Knights are historically deep in talent.
One of the biggest challenges facing the program’s head coach since 1994 isn’t fishing for route-runners, but keeping his footballers committed, on the field and in the classroom.
“There are so many distractions nowadays,” said Dominico, formerly an assistant coach at the University of Toronto. “What we try to stress is: if you’re disciplined in you’re daily life, then you can play sports.”
Whole new ballgame
For starters, Dominico is confident that Northern’s skill-set makes the Tier 1, South Region title, again a realistic goal.
As it is in the Canadian Football League, and generally everywhere, if you don’t have a competent QB it is difficult to win ballgames, Dominico acknowledged during a water break.
The play of first-year quarterback Robbie Marks will help determine whether or not the Red Knights can match their coach’s high expectations.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Marks admitted of his new role, after leading the junior team for two seasons. “But I think I’m up to it, and I hope to prove myself.”
Marks, 16, made time during the offence’s brief mid-practice breather to lend a few words, including his predictions for the approaching season.
“We’re hoping to get as far as we can, whether it’s city finals or the Metro Bowl,” said Marks, a Grade 11 student. “I think we’re looking pretty good right now; everyone’s working hard.”
Coordinating the defence is an indelible member of the Red Knights staff: former U of T coach Tom Gretes, who Dominico flatteringly refers to as his co-head.
Gretes, who first made his presence felt on the Northern sidelines in 1981, instructs his players with an authoritative tone, preaching technique first and foremost.
“The guys have to remember that you have to work hard,” said Gretes, a professor in the kinesiology department at York University. “I’m pretty excited about the season; we have a good young team, but also some veterans at key positions.”
After an extensive warm-up, led by the players themselves, and just before the offence and defence split into separate drills, coach Gretes provides his players with his “word of the day” — effort.
If any Red Knight players have forgotten what tripped them up a season ago, the coaching staff certainly has not, and isn’t interested in letting it happen again.
Let the games begin.