|May 5, 2013||2:30 pm||BAFA NL II South Central||2013|
|Milton Keynes Pathfinders||0||7||0||7||14||Win|
14 - 0Full Time
The Spartans saw their early-season struggles continue in a battle of two winless teams. A physical and controversial encounter in the Bank Holiday weekend sun ended with the visiting Milton Keynes Pathfinders escaping with a 0-14 victory and left Essex rooted to the foot of the table.
After dropping their first two encounters of 2013, the Spartans were hungry for that first taste of victory. The same could be said for the Pathfinders, who were still licking their wounds from an opening day defeat by the Watford Cheetahs. With both teams knowing a loss would leave them foot of the table, the game had all the makings of a close, tight, and hard-fought contest.
This was not a game for the faint-hearted. This was a brutal encounter, battles being fought in the trenches and across the field, with some questionable officiating decisions thrown in to add some extra spice. Offenses clashed with defenses who refused to give an inch. As the game went back and forth, the Spartans ensured the first quarter ended scoreless with Aaron Millars block of a Pathfinders field goal attempt.
Tom Overton-Smith, again leading the team in the absence of Tom Cooke, found the going tough against a ferocious Pathfinder defense. His scrambling style was buying him some time, but not enough to make a significant impact. With rushers Andy Tomlinson, Osi Nzeako, Ryan Towey, Craig Willis, Anthony Yeboah and Tony Ellis all struggling to find room to run, the Spartans offense was again spluttering.
The game was going to be decided by turnovers, and it was the Pathfinders who struck first, snagging a wayward Overton-Smith pass to gift the Pathfinders great field position. However, their joy was short-lived, Spartan Nick Mayer, responsible for so many game-changing plays in 2012, stepped in front of the receiver on the Pathfinders very next play to give the Spartans offense another chance.
Unable to move the ball, the Spartans gave the ball back to the visitors, who used a powerful rushing attack to grind their way deep into Spartans territory. Unable to halt theprogress, the Spartans soon found themselves down following a brusing touchdown rush with saw the first half end with the Pathfinders narrowly ahead 0-7.
The first-half performance enraged the Spartans coaches and captains, leading to harsh words and tough talk to their struggling followers – someone needed to step up, someone needed to make something happen. The Spartans were being given no help by the officials with some questionable calls, but the Pathfinders were digging deeper than the home side, fighting harder than the home side – did they want it more than the Black Tide?
Kick returner Craig Willis ducked and weaved his way through the Pathfinders return team with the opening kickoff, but hearts were in mouths as the ball slipped from his grasp. A fumble on the kickoff – not the start the Spartans were hoping for. Thankfully, alert special teams play meant rookie Norris Owusu scooped up the lose ball and continued the return, making his way deep into Pathfinders terriroty before being knocked out of bounds. Jublication on the home sideline – could this be the spark the team needed?
Confussion on the field. The officials huddled together, leaving the Spartans to stare in disbelief as word trickled through – had Owusu fumbled the ball before being knocked out of bounds? It appeared clear he had not – however, the officials disagreed, and gifted the ball back to the relieved Pathfinders. Anger mixed with frustration flowed through the home sideline – it seemed nothing could go right on this Sunday afternoon.
The Black Tide defense held firm, forcing the Pathfinders to punt. Return dynamo Mayer took the ball, and showed his elusive skills to work his way deep into Pathfinders territory before being tackled. However, again, the Spartans offense spluttered and stalled, leading to Mayer attempting his first field goal of the year – which sailed narrowly wide right of the posts. As the game entered it’s final quarter, it was delicately balanced at 0-7.
Tempers and passions raged as the teams continued their ill-tempered and scrappy contest. Spartans quarterback Tom Overton-Smith was levelled by a Pathfinders defender on a play which had been blown dead seconds before due to a false start penalty – but the officials saw nothing wrong. This was that type of game – a real “blood and guts” encounter, with the Spartans knowing they needed to dig deeper than ever before to come out of this game with something.
With the offense unable to generate anything, it was down to the defense to try and make something happen. Linebacker Jack Holder sacked the pathfinders quarterback, who fumbled the football into the hands of lineman Joe Venables. However, as with so many previous plays in the game, the officials saw something different, ruling forward motion had been stopped prior to the ball spilling out, and therefore, there was no fumble on the play.
Again, the Pathfinders drove downfield, but rookie defensive back Earnest Owusu gave the team hope with an interception deep in Spartans territory. With time running out, the Spartans sent in recently-signed quarterback Brandon Slieker to try and spark the team – and his impact was almost instant. Sliekers first pass fell into the hands of a Pathfinder, who rumbled his way into the endzone – only to see the score called back for a penalty on the defense.
Slieker’s struggled continued, unable to connect with his receivers as passes fell incomplete, running backs were stopped for little to no gain, and defensive linemen introduced him to the Hannakins Farm turf for a true taste of senior football. As Spartan hopes faded, Slieker saw another pass intercepted and returned into the endzone, this time with no penalty flags – the Spartans were down and beaten, 0-14.
The Spartans can look for reasons they lost the game. They can try to point the finger at questionable officiating, or look for other factors and claim it was out of their hands. But, they must look inside themselves, and realise that the team once again beat themselves. Sloppy mistakes, silly penalties, a spluttering offensive performance – it’s time for the Spartans to reflect and look for ways they can improve as a team.
A reflective Head Coach Marc Saunders said, “Today’s loss was certainly a disappointment, we made mistakes and we paid the price.
“The next three weeks will certainly be spent going back to basics and getting the little things wrking as they should.”
Three weeks. Three weeks of training, and improving, and identifying where the team has gone wrong. Three weeks to turn the team around. Three games played – three losses. The team sit at the foot of the table, gazing up at their slim playoff hopes. But all is not lost. Seven games remain. Seven Sundays to make amends. Seven winnable games. Seven games that must be won for the team to progress.
It all starts with training on Sunday – and then, on June 2nd, the Spartans travel to Kent to face off with rivals the Exiles. The first meeting ended with the Exiles taking the Battle For The Bridge under the floodlights at Hannakins – the Spartans need to be hungry for revenge and claim their first victory of the season.