The Spartans saw their 2013 season end the same way it had begun – with a loss to the Bedfordshire Blue Raiders.
But it was events that transpired off the field that stole the limelight, with Spartans Head Coach Marc Saunders announcing his retirement from both the playing and coaching ranks after three years in charge of the Essex outfit. Prior to Saunders’ bombshell, the Spartans were stunned to see former NFL player and current Sky Sports NFL analyst Cecil Martin fly in from Brussels to cheer the team on in the second half.
Saunders decided to “suit up” one last time as the Spartans looked to avenge an opening-day defeat to the Blue Raiders, and he made his presence felt on the visitor’s first drive. After recovering a Spartans onside kick, the Blue Raiders struggled to move the ball on a strong Black Tide defense. On 4th and short, Saunders crashed through the line to force the quarterback to scamble out of bounds, giving the ball back to the home team.
The Spartans offense, however, was having another bad day at the office. An early injury to running back Craig Willis was followed shortly after by an injury to fellow back Andy Tomlinson, thrusting Saunders into action. His punishing, bruising running style was effective as the Spartans pounded the ball through the heart of the Bedford defense, but drives ended short of the first down and out of scoring territory.
The visitors found themselves with good field position following a return of a Nick Mayer punt to the Spartans 30 yard line. A short while later, the Blue Raiders running back forced his way in for the score, and with the conversion, the visitors took a slim 0-7 lead.
The Spartans offensive struggles continued, drives ending in three-and out possessions. The Spartans defense, however, was holding firm, linebacker Neil Cooper delivering a crunching hit in the backfield on 3rd down to force a Blue Raiders punt.
The first quarter ended with the score still finely balanced at 0-7, but the second quarter saw some punishing play by the Spartans defense. The Bedford quarterback was flushed from the pocket and was gang-tackled by three determined Spartans defenders, leaving him down and out and forcing him from the game.
The Spartans passing attack was showing glimpses, with receivers Andre Espo and George Mitchell putting in noticeable performances as quarterback Brandon Slieker guided the team into field goal range as the first half wound down. Sadly, the Blue Raiders poured on the pressure down the middle on Mayer’s attempted kick and the ball sailed wide, leaving the Spartans on the wrong end of a 0-7 halftime scoreline.
Cecil Martin joined the Spartans coaches as they tried to rally their troops for the second half. His inspirational words focused around players looking inside themselves and wanting to finish the season on a high, words which rang in the ears of every Spartan player as the second half began. The last half of Spartans football in 2013.
The Spartans battled hard, giving no inch to the visitors. But the Blue Raiders had not won 4 games by luck, and they were able to move the ball down the field on the Spartans defense, further extending their lead with a quick aerial strike. The extra point kick fell short, but the visitors had further extended their lead 0-13.
The Blue Raiders tried a long field goal attempt later in the quarter, but the attempt fell into the hands of return man Nick Mayer, who weaved his way to the visitors 45 yard line. Sadly, whilst the Spartans offense were performing better as the game went on, they were unable to convert the great field position into points. A last-chance pass from Slieker in the final quarter was picked off by a Bedfordshire player, and with that, the final whistle sounded on another year of Spartans football.
Emotions ran high as Saunders announced his retirement to his troops. It had been a tough three years, seeing the team gain a playoff spot in his first year and susequent promotion into Division One, but the team has found the road tough since then and posted two 1-9 records. However, under Saunders expert guidance and leadership, the Spartans have grown together as a team and as a family, both on and off the field, and know they are a better team than the record suggests.
“I have had both the honour and the pleasure of being the Head Coach of the Spartans for over 3 years and feel it’s about time for a change for both myself and the team”, said Saunders. “I will keep close to the team and wish them every success in the future.”
The Spartans now take time to reflect and build a strategy to move forward in 2014. The end-of-season AGM will be followed by the annual presentation night, and an announcement regarding the teams plans for recruiting a new Head Coach will be made in due course.
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