The Sudbury Intermediate Rockhounds developed quite the following last summer, but it had nothing to do with the team emerging as a top end provincial powerhouse.
Like most Sudbury teams, the group settled into C division play, eventually winning gold at the all-Ontario tournament in August. What caught the attention of onlookers, however, was a lineup that more often numbered just eight bodies, going toe to toe with teams of 17 to 20 players.
"When we went on the floor and they looked at us, teams all kind of laughed, because they had a full bench and we had eight players," said Curtis Bennett, one of four returnees to the team this year. "Our warm-up wasn't the best, and then we would go out and beat a lot of those teams."
It made for an inspiring season. At a mid-summer tournament in Cambridge, fans from the host community showed up with signage supporting the out-manned northern squad.
A Laurentian University alumni returned to the rink with an electric fan, helping keep the few players who could sit on the bench refreshed during a rare break. This season, however, the Intermediate Rockhounds are looking to garner attention for entirely different reasons altogether.
An injection of talent, the core group of which have been among the most successful in recent Rockhound history, has dramatically changed the landscape.
Coach Mike Marion and his crew just returned from a tournament in the Beaches, looking down on a bench that included 16 bodies or so.
The situation requires a merging of mindsets. Take North Bay native Kieran Peltier, for instance, who joins Bennett in returning to the eldest of the youth lacrosse divisions. Peltier got more than his share of mileage on the floor in 2013.
"Kieran is a run-and-gun kid," said Marion. "He fits in with what I like to see, and how I like our team to play, which is as fast as we can go on the floor."
That description runs quite a bit counter to the strengths of Curtis Bennett's game.
"We were good at holding the ball and resting when we needed to," Bennett said of the little team that could. "And we knew how each other played. I've never played with most of these kids, and we're not as big as we were, but a lot of them are a lot faster than last year, so that's good."
In fact, having opposites attract can be a good thing.
"Curtis is a thicker lad, and his pace is a slower, more methodical approach, which would have worked well with the group of eight," Marion said. "Part of what he is able to bring to our team is the ability to pull back when its time, and evaluate what you need to do. He's one of the leaders."
As intriguing as Marion finds the mixture of talent at his disposal this year, his curiosity is piqued by the potential of moving the core group of first-year intermediates all the way through the four-year age bracket.
"I would like to keep this team together until all of these kids that are starting intermediate turn 21," said Marion. "Then it would be interesting. I really do think that the core that has stayed loyal to this group will actually prioritize their lacrosse as something that other things have to work around.
"Going forward, I do see this group as staying together and being extremely strong," Marion added.
As for the biggest challenge facing the influx of rookies, the long-time coach didn't hesitate.
"Being able to handle the intimidation factor, to be honest," said Marion. "That alone can shut down a kid with abundant skill. And learning not to engage in the stupidities, because there can be tons of stupidities."
Just ask someone who has been through it all before.
"I try and remind them that they have to realize that some of these guys will be 21," said Bennett, who will celebrate his 21st birthday later this summer. "I try and pass on what I know."
And with just eight players splitting the knowledge last summer, there was plenty to be learned indeed.