Never before have the Sudbury Gladiators entered a season as returning playoff conference champions.
In the opinion of head coach Aaron Rehel, that offers potential for both good and bad.
"From the players' perspective, the individuals that we've been associated with are significantly more dedicated," said Rehel, days in advance of the team's first dryland session April 18 at the Laurentian University Fieldhouse.
"They understand that hard work does give you success. We see a lot of this carryover into the off-season and their training."
On the other hand, it's a pretty safe bet that every single opponent the Gladiators face this summer will look at them as the defending Ramsey Conference champions, and not just a team that see-sawed its way to a 4-4 regular season record in 2016.
"We have never been in a position where we are looked at with the targets on our backs," said Rehel. "We're typically in the underdog role. This is a different mindset for the kids, where no one sees us under the radar and takes us lightly."
And where the varsity team needed to resort to a dramatic cry for additional bodies last April, fending off the very real threat of having to take a leave of absence due to a lack of players, the success of 2016 appears to have helped a team that finished the year on pretty solid footing.
"I'm pretty optimistic with this year's numbers," he said. "The numbers are pretty good already. I just want to keep the momentum going."
Entering just his third season as head coach of the varsity team, Rehel noted some personal growth as he moves forward along with his teenage troops.
"The best move I made, moving from my first year to my second year, was empowering the kids a lot more," he said. "Everyone wants to be a head coach, to be the guy that takes control. I am trying to let the kids lead the team. It's their team."
With key returnees on both sides of the ball, Rehel said the early prognosis for the 2017 Gladiators is one that would not have to rely too much on either component to carry the club to victory.
"This year, we will probably be where I ideally wanted the team to be," he said. "We'll be a balanced team, that on offense, can run and pass the ball. I think both sides (offence and defence) will complement each other."
With the Burlington Stampeders, Guelph Jr Gryphons and the Hamilton Varsity Tigercats all moving over to the newly formed Ontario Provincial Football League, the Gladiators will welcome the Sault Ste Marie Sabrecats to their conference, with the Toronto Jr Argonauts moving to the South Division.
Sudbury will open their season on May 27, welcoming the Nipissing Wild to town, extending their home stand to three games with follow-up battles with both the Vaughan Rebels (June 3) and Peterborough Wolverines (June 10).
The Glads will make their inaugural trip to Sault Ste Marie on June 17, and following a bye week, travel south to face the Forest City Thunderbirds (July 1) and Huronia Stallions (July 8).