‘Play for pride’ — Spartans treat season as learning experience, look to finish strong

Sudbury to close out regular season in North Bay on Saturday, open playoffs next week
Author of the article:Ben Leeson | Sudbury Star
Published Jul 20, 2023

Win or lose this weekend, the Sudbury Spartans are assured of a berth in the Northern Football Conference playoffs, but head coach Junior Labrosse figures there’s still plenty to play for when the locals visit the North Bay Bulldogs this coming Saturday.

For starters, wiping the 0 from their win column would go along way toward boosting the Spartans’ confidence amid a disappointing season that has seen their roster pared by injuries and work commitments. And make no mistake, they would love to play spoiler for a Northern Ontario rival that is looking to clinch top seed in the NFC.

But a strong finish to the 2023 regular season could mean much more in the long run, Labrosse said, as the Spartans look to rebuild the winning culture that helped them reach semifinals just one year ago.

“Play like they have played — play for pride,” said Labrosse, while watching a relatively small, but hard-working group of practice participants run through drills at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School on Wednesday evening. “Play for some personal goals — offence, get more points and defence, fewer points against. Take the game personally.

“You have to play the game to win the game. That’s what I want the guys to do an honestly, they have done it all year. We have been outmanned at a lot of positions and out of the six games we have had, I have never had a healthy roster, so that doesn’t help out either. But that’s what happens when you’re in a working community.”

With the NFC following a crossover format for quarter-finals once again, the Spartans will qualify for playoffs despite entering the final week of the regular season with a record of 0-5. After the Toronto Phantom Raiders took a leave of absence, the league fielded nine teams this summer, leaving just one club to miss the post-season. Oakville, also winless at 0-6, sits far behind Sudbury in the next tiebreaker category, points against, with a whopping 341 to Sudbury’s 134.

While it has been a tough go, Labrosse will be happy to see his regulars rewarded for their efforts, from a couple of heartbreaking, relatively close losses to the Sault and North Bay earlier in the year to a much more lopsided, but still hard-fought defeat against the league-leading Tri-City Outlaws just last weekend.

He expects another workmanlike performance in the Gateway City on Saturday.

Kickoff time is 7 p.m.

“They owe it to each other,” Labrosse said. “When you play, you don’t really play for your coach. You play for the guy who’s beside you on the field, the guy who’s in the trenches, and that’s what they have done all year, whether or not we have struggled in certain games. We scored quick on Saturday, guys were up and stuff, and there was no negativity on the bench. It was like OK, we’ll get it back next play and stuff like that. Defence is always playing for the pride of not getting scored on and to hopefully get the offence the ball back.”

Dressing only 28 players last weekend for their home game against the Outlaws, the Spartans did find the end zone first, only to fall in the end by a 30-point margin. Still, Labrosse and company saw positive signs on which to build moving forward.

“We were able to play,” Sudbury’s coach said. “It becomes a war of attrition when you don’t have the horses and a lot of guys are playing three ways. You can’t win a lot of games that way, because guys are just going to get tired, but the grinded it out and that’s what that have been doing all year.”

If Sudbury upsets North Bay, the Spartans will visit Tri-City in a quarter-final the following Saturday, July 29. The matchup will be the same if North Bay beats Sudbury and Tri-City wins its regular-season finale against Ottawa. If North Bay wins and Tri-City loses, however, North Bay will clinch top seed and face Sudbury yet again.

Quarter-final winners will have a bye for the Civic Holiday weekend, before reconvening for semis on Aug. 12.

“North Bay is not going to take us lightly,” Labrosse said. “That’s not how Marc Mathon coaches and that’s not how I coach, either.”

In their only other meeting on June 17, the Spartans put up 21 points against the Bulldogs for their best offensive outing of the season, but couldn’t blunt the Bulldogs’ attack, led by Hec Crighton winner Jordan Heather.

“We show things of brilliance at some points, but the inconsistency shows when guys are playing everywhere, or in positions they’re not familiar with,” Labrosse suggested. “You’re a DB, now you’re playing wide receiver and you have to learn the offence, or a D-lineman playing O-line. You kind of limit your playbook with those situations, but the guys aren’t complaining. They’re doing whatever it takes to try to succeed.”

Having witnessed the team’s highest highs and lowest lows during his own hall-of-fame playing career, Labrosse knows that regardless of result, his team can lay the foundation for another winner by establishing good habits in leaner times, then hopefully supplementing his dedicated core with graduates from the Junior Spartans U18 ranks.

“You take guys like Victor Paajanen, Nick Rideout, Tyler Bell — hopefully, a season like this doesn’t discourage them from coming out, but the thing is, what they’re learning from struggling is only going to make them better ball players come next year. That’s what I’m hoping every player takes out of this, not just the fact that we didn’t win a game. S—t happens, you get good seasons and you get bad ones — we went to semifinals last year and this year, we’re kind of rebuilding, because we lost key players here and there, but we have also gained guys like Bell, who didn’t play last year and he has been a pivotal part of this offence, a big playmaker. If guys like him can learn from this and not get discouraged and we get some fresh faces, who knows?”

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