London News & Search
When the London Jr. Mustangs won 11 straight games five years ago to claim the Ontario Varsity Football League title, Daniel Valente Jr. had one request.
“I went to every game the varsity team played that season, so I wanted a ring, too,” he recalled this week of the time when his father owned the team.
Now, he has a chance to earn the championship bling as an on-field contributor with another undefeated team in the new Ontario Provincial Football League’s first playoffs. The 8-0 Jr. Mustangs face the rival Essex Ravens in their West Division semifinal Saturday at 7 p.m. at TD Stadium.
And since he’s joining the Western University Mustangs secondary this fall, this is likely Valente’s last run with program that his father Dan bought from the Esposito clan, when the team was called the Falcons, and rebranded in 2011.
“It’s kind of emotional to see it ending this summer, but bigger and better things are coming and it’s going to be an easy transition (to Greg Marshall’s Mustangs),” Valente Jr. said. “Same coaches, mostly same systems, still wearing purple. This is where I’ve grown up and where I want to be.
“The Jr. Mustangs did a lot for me and, literally having this program right there, I’m proud of it. I felt it made me the player I am today.”
He is one of London’s most trusted playmakers and a pretty good return man, too. The Jr. Mustangs defence surrendered the fewest points in the league — a tick over 10 per game — and roll into the postseason after shutting out Kingston last weekend.
“I’m real proud of the boys for an undefeated regular season,” Valente Jr. said. “You lock up home field and no one likes those bus rides to Windsor, or wherever. It’s not good for your legs or anything. But it’s in the past now. Essex was always a tough opponent. They’re mean, gritty and like to run the ball.
“Last year (in the OVFL), we went 0-2 against them and this year, we hope to do the opposite.”
The switch to three-down football in the new loop was well-received by the league’s cornerbacks and safeties.
“More action for us,” Valente Jr. said. “When we played four downs last year, there was a lot of running. Now, it’s more of a passing league and it’s more fun. It gets us ready for university, too. It was a no-brainer, really.”
London’s stout defence is not by accident.
Even though his playing days and recent coaching roles have been coloured with an offensive tint, sideline boss J-P Circelli has always worried more about shutting down teams than scoring a bunch of points.
“We’re big on making sure we have our best 12 athletes on defence,” he said. “You take a top receiver, they may get targeted five times a game, where a safety could make an impact on every play.”
It’s the approach that pushed Mark Shelley to the other side of the line and took Max Nixon from a role as quarterback depth to an immediate defensive contributor under co-ordinator Gary Haldenby.
“We don’t hide anyone on defence,” Circelli said. “We want them flying around and making plays.”
Quarterback Jake Pow, held out after getting hurt in St. Catharines, is on track to be ready to play in the playoffs, and Jake Beukeboom, in his absence, keeps racking up the wins.
“Both should be ready to go,” Circelli said. “It’s a game-time decision (who starts).”
Valente Jr. has a personal motivation to stretch this season right to the title game in Ottawa. His dad has been working overseas in Abu Dhabi for some time — yes, there’s even some minor football being played there, too — and will be home at championship time.
“He’s in and out of town and he’s gone right now,” Valente Jr. said. “But he’ll be back if we make the finals.”
And in the dream finale, he’s asking Valente Sr. for another ring.
London News & Search