The Cambridgeshire Cats 2017 season was of limited success, finishing with a 5-5 record finding themselves eligible for both playoffs or relegation based on the results of the final game. Unwilling to take the chance of the same thing happening again, the Cats undertook an aggressive recruitment strategy. This paid dividend in terms of talented new players, veterans pestered out of retirement, and attracting a new Defensive Co-Ordinator in Coach Andy Whiteoak, bringing with him Defensive Coach, Ben Abbott. The Cats coaching staff was also bolstered by the return of Rick Bice as an Assistant Coach, who had lead the team as Head Coach for three seasons between 2006 – 2008.
Although the Cats were unable to play any preseason games, a controlled scrimmage against the Anglia Ruskin Rhinos provided a useful learning experience for both teams as well as recruiting players from the University side to join the Cats. The Cambridgeshire Cats would come in to their first truly competitive fixture largely untested.
Opening the 2018 season at home against the Kent Exiles. The Cats were able to draw first blood with a touchdown pass from QB Mark Rivett to Brandon Floyd. It didn’t all go the Cats way as the Exiles were able to put their own scoring drives together and were leading by nine points in the 4th quarter. Rivett and the offense managed to get a field goal back, inside the two-minute warning to bring the deficit to six. With insufficient time left to allow the Exiles another chance on offense, the call was made to attempt an Onside Kick. With a perfectly rolled ball by Scott Spearink, the special teams unit were able to recover the ball and give the Cats one drive, one final chance, to win the game. Strong running allowed the Cats to pick up a first down before a deep 35-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gilreath brought the score level. The Exiles were unable to block the extra point kick by Scott Spearink and the Cats had pulled ahead by one. With time ticking away the Exiles launched a quickfire offensive, only needing to get within range for a field goal to secure the win. However a muffed snap by the Exiles centre was pounced upon by defensive captain Russ Polson, and the Cats took a knee to allow time to expire and clinch the win.
The Cats next game was an away trip to the Colchester Gladiators. The Cats defense were able to smother the Gladiators offense, whilst the Cats offense was able to score two rushing touchdowns before the half, but were unable to score the extra points. With both the offense and defense riding high on their exploits up to this point, players on both sides of the ball felt the game was already won. This overconfidence allowed the Gladiators offense to take advantage and scored on their first drive on a pass to the tight end on a quick out. This momentum swing didn’t stop there, as the Cats were unable to score again on any of their possessions. Now it was the Gladiators who were full of confidence, but rather than let themselves become distracted they continued to fight and managed to score yet again on a 1 yard touchdown run and then convert a 2-point attempt. Now with the Gladiators leading 15-12, the Cats failed to make good on any of their subsequent possessions and suffered their first loss of the season.
The following weekend when they hosted the East Kent Mavericks. The Mavericks were a new opponent, promoted from the SFC II East in 2017, and the Cats were eager to welcome them to the division. Showing great strength of character the Cats were able to put the disappointing loss behind them and score on their first drive with a touchdown pass from Mark Rivett to Jonny Hodgson. The extra point kick hit the left upright to leave the score with the Cats ahead 6-0. The Mavericks answered quickly with a long touchdown run, weaving through the defenders and taking the lead with a successful extra point kick. On the subsequent kick off, returner Andy Custerson evaded the coverage and was finally brought down on the Mavericks 10 yard line. This short field was capitilasied on, as the Cats needed a single play to score and move ahead to 13-7. The Mavs offense were unable to replicate their early success, instead finding themselves giving up a saftety. The Cats lead by 15-7. Before the half the Cats were able to punch the ball in on a goal line run by Scott Spearink, and with the successful extra point the score now sat at 22-7. With neither side able to make any headway in the second half, the Cats moved to 2-1 on the season.
In their next fixture the Cats would face an old opponent, the Wembley Stallions, having last played each other when the Cats were the underdogs of the 2016 SFC II East. With the Stallions also newly promoted to Division 1, the Cats had an opportunity to show that they’d only improved since they’d last met. This was evidenced on the opening kick off where Josh Gilreath ran back the length of the pitch for a touchdown, putting the Cats ahead 0-7. The Stallions were held to a 3-and-out on their first possession and were forced to punt. On the first play, Mark Rivett found an open Josh Gilreath streaking down the seam who was able to take it all the way for another score, Cats up 0-14. Exchanging scores up to the half the Cats came in to the break leading 13-30. Both sides showed themselves to have adjusted over the break as the scoring slowed down after the break. The Stallions struck first after the break and narrowed the gap to 19-30. However when the Cats took the ball back they were able to get the ball to Scott Spearink who scored his third touchdown of the day. With time winding down the Stallions picked up a consolation score, and the game finished 26-37 to the Cats.
With a four week break before their next game, the Cats were feeling great sat at 3-1 and leading the division. It was at this point that the team was struck by tragedy. Long time player Charles Mack went down at training having suffered a heart attack. Despite the best efforts of first aiders, paramedics, and doctors at Addenbrookes, Charles would not recover. Leaving a hole in the lives of his family, his friends, and his teammates, he will always be remembered.
Following their break the Cats would welcome the Wembley Stallions to their home ground. The Cats focussed on the task at hand and put in a dominant performance. Scott Spearink opened the scoring with an example of his north-south running, charging through the line for the touchdown. Mark Rivett spread the ball around, connecting with Alex Smith, Andy Custerson, and Alex McCormick for scores. The defense were out to make a statement with their performance, allowing no points against and picking up six points on an interception by Mark Palmer. The game would finish 40-0 to the Cats.
The Cats were back. For what happened next, check out Part Two.