In 2022, both Daniel Valente Jr. and Siaosi Mariner showed up at Ottawa REDBLACKS rookie camp as unproven kids, just looking to make their mark on the coaching staff.
To a certain extent, both accomplished that goal. They made it to main camp, seeing action in the preseason, and while Valente was set to return to Western University, Mariner stayed with the REDBLACKS on the practice roster, before eventually working his way into the lineup later in the season.
Now, both have returned, taking part in rookie camp – and subsequently main camp once again – with much higher expectations of themselves. Valente, in particular, came to Ottawa with nothing to lose last season, knowing that no matter what, he had a place with the Vanier Cup-contending Mustangs in his back pocket. In the absence of any such opportunity this time, he says that he’s “all in,” solely focusing on making the team.
“It’s definitely a more competitive vibe, in my mind,” Valente said. “I’m sure the coaches view it the same, it’s competition at the end of the day.”
When you’ve already got one opportunity under your belt, the pressure mounts, and expectations rise, they both admit, but it also brings an element of comfort.
“It’s like you’re more comfortable in your own skin,” Mariner said. “You don’t have the same jitters. You still have to make the team, but you’re in a different situation. It’s about proving what the coaches already know about you.”
At Western, Valente made a name for himself for being one of the stoutest defensive backs in the country, earning himself the honour of being selected by the REDBLACKS in the fourth round of the 2022 Draft. In 2021, Valente won his second Vanier Cup, taking home the Bruce Coulter Award for the most outstanding defensive player in the game, while gaining some championship pedigree he would carry in his final collegiate season.
In 2022, Valente took another step forward in his personal development, snagging five interceptions, en route to winning the Ontario University Athletics Outstanding Stand-Up Defensive Player of the Year award.
The CFL game was still a difficult adaptation for Valente, but by the time he was sent back, some thought he could hang in the league already. He intercepted a Vernon Adams Jr. pass in the preseason, but with a handful of veterans ahead of him in the depth chart, playing time would have been sparse. He took his assignment in stride, building a list of things to work on at the suggestion of the coaching staff, and set about finding improvement.
“They gave me a couple of pointers, and showed me a few things I needed to work on,” Valente said. “One of the big things for me was putting on some weight, and I did that. I also needed to mature as a player, and really zero in on that feedback and bring it to fruition.”
The expectation for returning players goes beyond what they can do for themselves. Familiar with the area, the stadium, and even the game itself, they are relied upon to be leaders, and help those around them.
“I want to be one of the guys that lead by example,” Mariner said. “If guys come to me with questions, I want to give them answers. I want this transition to be as easy for them as possible. I feel myself taking on that bigger role, and being a little more vocal.”
Part of that leadership is working alongside veteran quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Nick Arbuckle, as well as the coaches, to up the standard set last season.
“You want to keep that standard high and keep raising it as you go on,” Mariner said. “You want to make sure everyone gets it. The coaches have been doing a good job of implementing that. That’s going to be our identity if things go bad, so we have to keep the standard high if we want to do big things this year.”
All of it together poses a significant challenge for returning players, but it’s nothing they are shying away from.
“That’s why I signed this contract to come play here,” Mariner said. “I do it for moments like this. This is the first time in my career I’ve had a group of people that believe in me and have my back, so it’s up to me to go and snatch it.”