Winning is contagious - or so it has been said.
In the case of the defending Ontario Summer Football League (OSFL) U16 AA champion Sudbury Jr Spartans, it may have reached near-epidemic proportions.
On the heels of their title-winning campaign, one capped by a dramatic come-from-behind 27-25 victory over the Vaughan Rebels, the local franchise has made two interesting changes: a) introducing an U18 team for OSFL competition this summer and b) beginning practices much earlier, thanks in large part to the availability of the Lancer Dome indoor bubble field.
The net result was impressive, to say the least - no less than some 140 players or so at tryouts which started about three weeks ago.
"Last year, we didn't really have tryouts," said returning defender Niki Sola, a key cog in the Sudbury defense one year ago in his role at halfback.
"Everyone made the team. Here we are in February and March and getting work done early."
Everyone who has returned from one year ago has taken notice, whether they still had U16 age eligibility, such as Sola, or the core of the championship winning team that will make the jump, such as feature running back Zidain Allen.
"I feel like everyone is a lot more comfortable, even the coaches," said the 16 year-old senior at Lasalle Secondary School. "They have a mindset - things they want to do, things they want to achieve in practice."
"We're trying to get ahead of the game. We're trying to get guys conditioned, football ready, football focused and ready to work for the summer."
Nothing short of that mindset is acceptable if the crew that has tasted summer success wants to remain equally as competitive in a U18 division that will see them face top-end provincial talent they avoided one year ago.
"It's about coming to practice every day, working hard every day," said Allen. "Also coming to practice with a good mindset. When you hit that field, anything that is not football doesn't matter. Step on the field and it's football, football, football."
According to Allen, it's not only the numbers that are larger - but also the size of the young men who tend to pave his way downfield. "I feel that the linemen are a lot bigger, but also a lot faster and more agile," he said.
"It makes me more comfortable to run behind them because I know that they can either get in the hole, clear the hole or run down the field."
As for Sola, he is, at very least, contemplating a slight move in terms of his positioning by the time the season starts in May.
"I was a halfback last year, but I really like playing safety," said the young man who just turned 15 last month. "I think I am pretty exceptional at it. I think I would feel comfortable playing safety."
"As a half, you're doing zones, covering flats, always looking for their downhill and run plays. At safety, you're more of a helped on deeper routes and things like that, making more reads, making more plays."
Of course, the flipside is equally true, that at safety, the opponents you are trying to cover are also that team's playmakers - with southern Ontario squads seldom finding it difficult to lure athletes who double as track stars to their wide receiving corps.
"They might be bigger, stronger, faster - but you can be smarter," suggested Sola of the challenge that is presented when dealing wih the skilled positions players from across the province. "You can outplay them by playing with more heart."
Interestingly enough, all of this is happening just as the Jr Spartans have welcomed aboard a glut of relatively young faces in the coaching ranks, certainly led by 2022 head coach Jordan Desilets and some key assistant coaches from last summer (included Alex Vendramin, who assumes the head coaching role with the U18 team this year), but also with a handful of others who have joined the fold.
"Young coaches have recent experience in the game," suggested Allen. "With young coaches, I find they not only think about the game, but they imagine the plays and play them - and that translates to us."
And not that there was any additional excitement needed in a venue that brimmed with optimism every bit as much as it was brimming with young football talent, but there is that special connection that Desilets shares with those who travelled the journey of 2022 with him and his staff.
"He always gets you hyped up, wanting to play football," said Sola with a smile. "He just makes you love the sport."
After breaking for a couple of weeks, the Jr Spartans' teams will resume practices on the weekend of March 24th, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get outdoors as the weather warms and the snow melts away.
In the meantime, the team will practice indoors and let that winning feeling spread.