Spartans forfeit NFC quarter-final, citing safety concerns

Tri-City gets bye to semifinal
Author of the article:Ben Leeson | Sudbury Star
Published Jul 25, 2023

A series of hard-fought, yet winless efforts by the short-staffed Sudbury Spartans will not be rewarded with a berth in the Northern Football Conference playoffs after all.

NFC officials announced on Monday night that Sudbury would forfeit its quarter-final game against the Tri-City Outlaws, scheduled for this coming Saturday, giving the latter a bye to the semis.

Exacerbated by injuries and work and school commitments, player numbers were a constant challenge for the men’s team during the regular season. Just 25 dressed for a 42-21 loss in North Bay this past Saturday, earning praise from head coach Junior Labrosse for a gutsy outing. Those same issues prompted this week’s forfeit, announced by the NFC in a Facebook post on Monday and acknowledged by Spartans brass the following day.

Reached again on Tuesday, Labrosse said the decision, while difficult, was a matter of player safety.

“For the North Bay game, we went down with 25 and injuries happen, then there’s work commitments,” Labrosse explained. “We also had three players getting ready to go to university camps. So you go from 25 and you’re down three more and in that game, we ended up getting four or five more injuries. I’m not going down to Tri-City with 18, 19 guys. It’s not that the guys didn’t want to go, but I have to take their safety into consideration.

“This is not like Joe Mac or Pop Warner, where kids can play every position, because there’s not much contact, there’s not much hitting. Anybody who has played this league knows it’s a physical league and when you’re asking guys to play triple duty — offence, defence and specials — in 40-degree heat and you ask them to hit every play or to be hit every play, it gets to a point where your body’s going to start shutting down and serious injuries can happen. These guys have got to put bread on the table.”

Sudbury’s entry in the NFC had hoped to build on a strong 2022 campaign, during which the locals posted a regular-season record of 5-1 and won their first playoff game in 28 years to reach semifinals. But the departures of starters from quarterback Adam Rocha, who signed in the Canadian Junior Football League, to lineman Kyle Henri, who has battled lingering injuries, combined with steady improvements by league rivals such as North Bay and the Sault, prevented the Spartans from converting their workmanlike performances into victories.

Sudbury still qualified for the playoffs, however, due to the Toronto Phantom Raiders’ decision to fold their tents in pre-season, combined with the Oakville Longhorns’ even poorer regular season — Oakville was outscored 341-6 in six games, compared to a 176-65 margin for Sudbury, and the Longhorns failed to record a single touchdown on offence — and the Spartans were expected to visit Tri-City, if enough players were available to safely field a team, in hope of scoring what would have been a dramatic upset.

“These guys are men, they’re not getting paid to play and I have to take into account that they have to go home, they have to go to work and pay their bills and if something serious happens, they’re off for two or three months because of the old let’s-get-it-done-for-the-pride thing,” Labrosse said. “Guys were ready to go down, but it was my decision, talking with management and stuff, that it was unsafe. I didn’t want to put these guys at risk. That’s the only reason. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to get blown out or whatever.”

Monday’s announcement means the Sudbury Junior Spartans, defending champions in the Ontario Summer Football League U16 AA loop, will be the only representative of the organization to move on in the post-season, having won a quarter-final this past weekend. Sudbury’s newly founded U18 team also saw its season come to an end, losing a first-round playoff matchup in Sarnia on Sunday.

“From the team we had last year that made semifinals, we lost 25 players from that roster, whether they retired or were unable to make the commitment to the team,” Labrosse said. “Some have gone to play ball in the States, Adam Rocha went out west. When you lose 25 guys off a roster, you’re going to take a hit.”

As expected, the introduction of a Junior Spartans U18 team also pared the roster of the men’s team, as some of the youngsters who dressed for Labrosse in 2022 chose to play with their peers this year, though he hopes they’ll return to the men’s crew after they graduate.

“My hats off to the guys who the guys who battled, who came out this year, who wanted to play ball and wanted to represent,” Labrosse said.

He criticized “armchair quarterbacks” who took shots at the team and its staff in response to the NFC’s Facebook post, before commenting was turned off, and who suggested the Spartans were afraid to face the Outlaws.

“If you think you know better, why don’t you come out and play?” Sudbury’s coach said. “You come out and play and our numbers are better, instead of yapping and thinking you have all the answers.”

Labrosse has already turned his mind to next season and is determined to surround his core of die-hards with talent and depth to rival the recent squads that have topped 50 players.

“I have already started,” he said. “Things have to change in the way the senior men’s team has approached recruiting players. I have already talked to some of our upper management over certain things that I want to work on, because with the U18 coming in, which is absolutely phenomenal, we did take a hit since played down at their age group. That being said, the guys who are graduating are going to benefit us immensely in years to come.

“The men’s organization is not there to hamper or try to take anything away from the U18 team. It’s our feeder system. I respect the coaches down there and I know they’re promoting their guys to come up after they’re graduated. I also need men, however, and there’s people in the city of Sudbury who probably don’t even know the team, whether they’re from down south or from outside of the country or whatever. I need fresh faces, so I have to approach it that way, too.”

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