The Notre Dame Jugglers freshmen football team is back at the front of the pack for the first time since 1985. On Saturday morning at B.C. Place, the Jugglers narrowly defeated the G.W. Graham Grizzlies 28-26 to win the Grade 8 provincial championship.
Head coach Joe Garcea, also an alum of the East Side Catholic school, said the Jugglers began preparing in May. The victory was a long time coming for a program that emphasizes tradition and loyalty.
"It's tough to put into words," he said. "You had to have seen how these kids developed and grew from back in May. It means everything - to the parents, the alumni, the coaches and the kids."
He felt like a father, watching the 12- and 13-year-old boys learn the complexities of the gridiron game. The majority of the players had never worn a football helmet before starting spring training months before they started high school. Come September, they practised five days a week.
The win was emotional. "There were tears. We had preached all week whatever you do, win or lose, don't cry," said the coach. The players weren't alone, though. Garcea teared up, too. "I know what it means to these kids," he said.
Quarterback Steven Moretto, who comes by his football pedigree honestly as the son of a former B.C. Lion defensive back, was named the game's most valuable player. He ran for two touchdowns and 152 yards on 22 carries. He threw for 56 yards, including a 41-yard pass to Matthew Manetta who was hauled down on the one-yard line.
The Grizzlies opened scoring in the first quarter and, as they did after each touchdown, went for two points.
Manetta answered for Notre Dame and Moretto scored two more on a quarterback sneak. To cap a tremendous rushing drive, Mauro Giammaria gave the Jugglers a 14-6 lead on a 23-yard touchdown. He also ran in the two-point convert.
The Grizzlies ended the half with a TD to trail 14-12. The Jugglers spread the lead to 10 with Moretto's second running touchdown but the Grizzlies answered with a pass of their own. On a well-anticipated defensive move, Jojo Santalucia tipped the ball but it landed in the hands of the receiver.
He put momentum back on the side of the Jugglers with a 30-yard kick return and with eight minutes to play, Giammaria scored again. Notre Dame let 28-18. Graham scored again and their extra two points were good, closing Notre Dame's lead to two points.
The Jugglers played it smart, keeping a close eye on the clock and twice taking a knee at third and goal to win the game.
With the victory, Notre Dame kicks off a round of celebrations, which will include raising the banner. Garcea is inviting the 1985 championship team to the school's celebratory dinner.
"What's started is a new standard, a new tradition, and being able to say when we walk on the field that we can compete," said Garcea, who was grateful for returning alumni coaches and parent support. A boisterous cheering section was especially meaningful given the school's dedication to brotherhood.
"What stood out to me was the senior players at our game. They were painted in our colours and when the final whistle went, they were jumping on the field and they were hugging the Grade 8s."
It won't be long until these champions are cheering on a new pack of freshmen.