Spartans see surge at practice, tune up for season opener against Sault

Author of the article Ben Leeson | The Sudbury Star
Published Jun 01, 2023

Save for taking a few snaps on a fill-in basis, Nick Rideout has not spent much time at quarterback since starring at Lively District Secondary School five years ago.

Not that he hasn’t made an impact on the football field in the interim. Indeed, the talented all-around athlete was an important part of the Sudbury Spartans offence last summer, primarily as a receiver who recorded a team-high 324 yards on 15 catches, with three touchdowns.

With Adam Rocha signed by the Okanagan Sun of the Canadian Junior Football League, however, and with Sudbury’s receiving corps in relatively good shape, Rideout has moved back under centre for the 2023 Northern Football Conference campaign, forming one half of a duo with fellow LDSS product Hugh Campbell ahead of Saturday’s season opener against the Sault Steelers, to kick off at James Jerome Sports Complex at 7 p.m.

“First of all, I’d like to say I’m really proud of Rocha,” Rideout, now 23, told The Sudbury Star on Wednesday. “He’s a great quarterback and I’m glad he’s got that opportunity to go play out west. He’s a hard worker and he deserves it.

“As for me playing here, it’s definitely going to be an adjustment. It has been since high school, which was 2018, so it’s just getting back into the swing of things, getting a lot of quality reps at practice, but I’m looking forward to it. The good thing about quarterback is I get to touch the ball every play, so I can’t complain about that. A little more pressure, but with the right practices and if we get some work in, I think I’ll be comfortable.”

Practices were certainly more encouraging this week, with some scheduling adjustments and a move from James Jerome to St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School helping to boost turnout from as low as a dozen or so players roughly two weeks ago to around 40 by Wednesday night.

A healthy complement of 47 players had signed with the men’s semi-pro team as of mid-week, with a few more still trickling in.

“Turnout today is a lot better than what we have seen all pre-season so far,” Rideout suggested. “That’s a pretty good sign and I think we’re have a much more productive week this week and put a lot more stuff in. I’m looking forward to it, definitely.”

League schedule-makers made some adjustments last week, after the Toronto Phantom Raiders bowed out for the year. Rather than open against the Tri-City Outlaws as originally scheduled, the Spartans will begin the season with a home-and-home schedule against the Steelers, the second half of which will be played in Sault Ste. Marie on June 10.

“The reasons we had lack of players was the times we were practicing at,” explained head coach Junior Labrosse, who has handed off offensive co-ordinator duties for this season to fellow NFC hall-of-famer Paddy Walsh. “You’ve got grown men who have jobs and stuff and you’re practicing 9 to 11, but they have to get up at 4 in the morning, it’s hard. I have done it and it’s a sacrifice, but I understand your job has to come first.

“I approached ownership and said something’s got to get done or we won’t be able to field a team if we don’t have guys consistently at practice. I said I’m willing to go on a grass field and have earlier times and you just look at tonight’s turnout — it’s 100 per cent better.”

Despite the late start, compared to counterparts in the Junior Spartans U16 and U18 programs, Labrosse reckoned the semi-pro squad would be fairly well-prepared for its season opener, the players having eagerly embraced their systems.

“Now that everyone’s together, the offence seems to be coming together very well,” Sudbury’s coach said. “Paddy Walsh is doing a great job co-ordinating the offence this year and we have some fresh faces and some veteran players. It’s jelling.”

Al Nowoselsky has returned as defensive co-ordinator this season, while Will Fryer will coach special teams, Hayward White will work with running backs, Ossie Wilson will mentor defensive backs and John Sabourin will serve as a positional coach. Lindsay White is to join the staff, once his work schedule allows, to coach the linebackers.

It’s in the last of those groups where Labrosse and company have encountered significant turnover, but remain encouraged by what they’ve seen from sophomore Andrew Kilby, who recently committed to the University of Waterloo, and newcomer Bryce Desabrais, who was a walk-on at Carleton and “has really shown he belongs” on a linebacking corps that also includes quality returnees such as Ben Cacciotti and Eric Breau.

“There has been a turnover, but there has been some good replacements,” Labrosse said. “It’s always hard to fill shoes of certain guys, but as a coach, it’s nice to see fresh blood coming out.”

He, too, had mixed feelings about the departure of Rocha, who posted a league-high 1,113 passing yards last season before helping the Spartans qualify for their first NFC semifinal since 1994 — sorry to lose his services, but thrilled for his opportunity in the CJFL. Labrosse is more than confident, however, in his current personnel, and in Walsh’s knowledge and expertise.

“We have Hughie Campbell and Nicholas Rideout and each of them brings something different to the game, so we have a different dimension to our offence this year and with Paddy co-ordinating it all, it’s looking really good,” Labrosse added.

“I always try to balance everything out, but you take what the defence is giving you. We’ll have a game plan, but if they give us the pass, we’ll throw the ball and if they give us the run, we’ll run the ball. I’m feeling very optimistic about this offence.”

Rideout has been impressed by the progress of receiver Adam Pagan, as well as the showings of former Lively teammates Tyler Bell and Victor Paajanen in training camp.

“I’m looking forward to throwing the balls to them and getting back in the groove,” Rideout said. “All the guys are looking really solid, all the receivers. Everyone’s got good hands, good routes.

“I think if we have a good, solid week this week, we’ll be back in the swing of things.”

While not quite the powerhouse of years past, the Sault turned in a very respectable 3-3 showing in 2022, taking one of two highly competitive games against Sudbury, and ought to provide an excellent test to start a new season.

“It’s Sault-Sudbury football,” smiled Labrosse, who participated as a player in several smash-mouth affairs between the Northern Ontario rivals. “If you followed this league for a while, you’ll be expecting a hard-hitting, grinding-out game, with a lot of respect between both opponents. It’s a longtime rivalry and I enjoy coaching it and I enjoyed playing in it.”

Both the Junior Spartans U16 and U18 teams are on the road for Ontario Summer Football League action on Saturday, with the former visiting Orangeville and the latter heading to York. All three local squads are in the Sault the following weekend.

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