BY RYAN BOWMAN
Slim and tarnished though it may seem, there’s a silver lining in the cloud that was the Twin Cities Predators sophomore season. So says the team’s first-year head coach, Tom Arnott.
“We have a very good core of players with skill and character who are reliable,” said Arnott, whose U-23 squad finished their second season in the Canadian Junior Football League with an 0-8 record. “Now we need more of them.”
In addition to being the league’s newest team, Arnott said, the Predators are one of the youngest and most inexperienced. According to Arnott, more than 50 per cent of the players on the 2012 roster were rookies.
“I knew nothing about the team coming in,” Arnott said. “My only expectations were that each game we would go onto the field and compete to the best of our ability.”
Competition is nothing new to Arnott. He has more than 30 years of sideline experience at the high school and university levels, including stints with Wilfrid Laurier University, York University and the University of Guelph.
Coming off a 2-6 campaign in 2011, their first in the league’s eight-team Ontario Football Conference, Twin Cities struggled significantly on both sides of the ball. Week after week, the Predators were preyed upon by the competition, surrendering an average of 33 points per game while managing to score an average of only 10.
“We need to improve in all areas,” Arnott said, “but most pressing is our run game on offence.”
One of the bright spots for the Predators this season was the team’s secondary, thanks in large part to the emergence of second-year free safety Jake Marken. Marken, who led the team with six interceptions, including one for a touchdown, said the team was initially apprehensive about playing under a new bench boss.
“Getting a new head coach is always a little nerve-racking,” said Marken, 21. “Will he be tough enough to make us a playoff contender? Will he get along with all the players?
“After the first week of practice all of those questions were gone. Coach (Arnott) took full responsibility for any bad thing that happened to the team and is ready to take the guys who want to play this game the way it should be played and win a championship. I wouldn’t trade him for anyone.”
Arnott, who was named Ontario University Athletics coach of the year in 1995, and again in 1997, said he strives to strike a balance between mentor and motivator.
“I primarily consider myself a teacher who is also intense about competition. I ask the players to be disciplined and focused and to play the game hard and never quit.”
According to Marken, who was one of two Predators to make the 2012 OAC all-star team, the biggest struggle throughout the squad’s winless season was not the pile-up of losses, but the indifference some of his teammates displayed down the stretch.
“The hardest part was getting near the end without a win and seeing guys start to disappear from practice,” he said. “It’s like trying to drive a muscle car without wheels. The car is fast and strong and works great, but you can’t run it without the wheels turning underneath you.”
Despite the fragile morale of the team, both Arnott and Marken said there were moments when the Predators flashed their fangs. One in particular came in week six when they faced the lethal offence of the London Beefeaters, who finished the season atop the league standings at 7-1.
Though the Preds lost the game 37-8, Arnott said it was a defining moment for his players.
“Everything came together and you could feel the team’s intensity go up and their enjoyment of playing the game, both on the sideline and on the playing field,” he said.
“We got significantly beat up for most of the game but we came together as a team and defensively shut them down for the rest of the game,” Marken added.
“We didn’t win, but we showed heart.”
While Twin Cities would go on to drop their final two games, including a 28-20 loss to the Brampton Bears in their Sept. 19 season finale, Marken said he has high hopes for next fall.
“I have complete faith in the coaches, my teammates and myself that we will do great things next season,” he said. “And I plan on working my ass off in the off-season to get ready for it.”
Arnott, who said he intends on returning next season, said that’s precisely the attitude he expects from his players moving forward.
“At the end of the day we are not defined by a scoreboard, but by the effort put into achieving a goal,” he said. “The lessons learned today will pay off tomorrow.”