For the better part of the first month of the 2019 Northern Football Conference season, Sudbury Spartans' head coach Junior Labrosse reminded us about just how young his team was this year.
Deeper than in the past, yes, but with an heavy influx of youthful, inexperienced depth. Certainly inexperienced against the likes of the GTA All-Stars. That gap was evident Saturday evening at Birchmount Stadium in Toronto, as the 7-1 All-Stars blew open the game in the second quarter, building up a 35-0 lead en route to a 49-7 triumph over the 5-2 Spartans.
It wasn't as though Labrosse and company have not seen this version of the perennial league powerhouse before. "We're going to get smacked in the mouth, we're going to have to smack back," he said at practice last Thursday.
Yet for as tough as this loss might be, it is all part of the development curve for the likes of Ben DeBenedet and Nicholas Rideout, just two of the plentiful group of newcomers to the Spartans, even if they come at it in very different manners.
Now 27 years old, DeBenedet was nine years removed from his final high-school game as a member of the St Charles College Cardinals when he opted to give the Spartans a try last summer.
"I had some friends on the team that I had played high-school football with and they contined after high-school," said the nephew of 1970's Spartans all-star running back and NFC Hall of Famer, Ottavio DeBenedet.
"It just kind of worked out that I had the time to get out and play." Looking to earn a spot in the backfield, the younger DeBenedet was shifted to linebacker last summer, where the time he had spent carrying the ball actually came in quite handy as he flipped over to the other side of the line.
"It's almost like you can predict a play is going to come, you see the same opening that the runner sees, and you can almost meet them there, be ready for the play," said DeBenedet. "Last year, it was all about getting back into the swing of it, the physicality of it, getting used to the footwork again."
It is that jump that must be kept in mind when one considers the number of teenagers that are part of the 2019 Spartans' roster, many of whom would quite likely have been playing varsity or junior football this summer, had the option been available.
"You really notice the size and aggressiveness of the guys in this league," said Nicholas Rideout, who just last fall was leading his Lively Hawks to a SDSSAA banner before deciding to suit up against grown men this summer.
"Even with the Glads last year, when I was a receiver, trying to make a block, the guys were not as physical. Here, against the Sault or Hamilton, when I go to block their DB's, sometimes they just throw me around."
"You can tell the difference with age and experience in the game." Rideout uttered these words before having played against the GTA All-Stars, though the same mindset now likely applies. Yet for as much as he had heard talk of their prowess, he wasn't all that concerned about entering the game completely awestruck, extending the opposition so much respect that it takes away from what you are fully capable of doing.
"For me, it's kind of weird," said Rideout. "I can be amazed by what they can do when I'm not playing, but when I hit the field, it's game on. I don't care who I'm against, I just snap into game mode. I like being pushed by playing against better people."
And on Saturday, that he was. To their credit, the Spartans battled, getting on the board late in the first half courtesy of a long pass from Adam Rocha to Nick Witzke, neither of whom has celebrated his 20th birthday yet.
Second half interceptions by Riley Roy and Josh Girolametto were encouraging. And as long as the young Spartans learn from this loss, the ability to move forward, in tandem, still holds plenty of reason for optimism.
"I think it's a lot easier with so many of us here that are young," said Rideout. "It gives us more confidence, because we have been competing against these people the past few years. It certainly helps us feel more comfortable on the field, just to get out there and play our game."
Facing their second straight ultra-stiff test, the Spartans will welcome the Ottawa Sooners to the James Jerome Sports Complex this coming Saturday.
While Ottawa boasts a record of just 4-3, they are only the only NFC team to hand the GTA All-Stars a loss, with their setbacks coming against the Steel City Patriots (21-0 - Sudbury lost 34-14 to Steel City), GTA All-Stars (18-6) and Steel City, for a second time, last weekend (28-10).