April 30, 2009

Stilley Hopes Titans Steal Show at MSG

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Dave Stilley sees New York's playoff game against Rochester at Madison Square Garden on Friday as a landmark occasion for the NLL.
© Gibson Communications

On the floor, Dave Stilley is short-sighted, limiting his focus to staying in front of his man, interrupting picks, and contesting for loose balls with a physical style that has made him a fan favorite with three National Lacrosse League franchises: Philadelphia, Colorado and currently New York.

Off the floor, Stilley sees the big picture -- the future of the NLL.

That's why the New York Titans defender, winner of Champion's Cup rings in 1998 and 2001 with Philadelphia and 2006 with the Mammoth, views Friday's New York-Rochester game, the first-ever NLL playoff game at Madison Square Garden, through a wide prism.

"It is not just a playoff game with all that implies," he said. "It is an opportunity to advance the reach of the game in the media capital of the United States. It is a very important game for the league.

"I'm really taking it very personally. It is an amazing opportunity for lacrosse supporters, fans and gurus to really step up and support the league. Our team is in a market that frankly needs to succeed in order for the league to step up to the next level. I know my team and our owners are kind of taking ownership of that responsibility to get folks to that game any how any way.

"Obviously, past attendance has not been very solid and in order for us to be a tier I or tier II sport, we need to have success in New York City. It is where all the media companies are, where all the television companies are. In order for us to take that next leap, it is a very critical game, at least that's my way of thinking. A lot of people are working very hard to at least ensure a solid turnout."

New York played five home games at Prudential Center in New Jersey, averaging less than 4,500 fans, and placed twice in Madison Square Garden, drawing 5,187 against Rochester and 5,487 against Calgary.

The Titans' season average of 4,692 was second-to-last in the NLL, ahead of only San Jose's 4,129, and light years behind league leaders Buffalo (17,947) and Colorado (16,475).

Stilley, a graduate of Duke, sees the youth lacrosse growth in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and believes those players and their parents can help fill Madison Square Garden.

Having played in Colorado, which has led or ranked second in NLL attendance since its inception in 2003, Stilley believes NLL's vitality depends on those kinds of figures, league-wide, despite a poor economy.

As for Friday's game, Stilley promotes it as the Michael Jordan of lacrosse, Rochester's Gary Gait fresh out of retirement, against another former Syracuse star, New York's Casey Powell.

Both stars wear No. 22.

While Gait, 41, lacks the impact he had earlier in his Hall of Fame career, he retains the knack for scoring or setting up timely goals, an attribute he shares with Powell, who led the league in goals scored until missing three games with an injury.

"In my book, Casey Powell is the league Most Valuable Player," Stilley said, pointing to Powell setting up the tying goal and scoring the insurance goal in an 11-9 victory at defending NLL champion Buffalo on March 28, and his 10 goals and 14 assists in the Titans three-game, season-ending win streak.

"He's been the one to score the goal to put a game out of reach or to secure the win," Stilley said. "He's capable of doing that at any time. When CP has the ball in his stick, you're in pretty good hands."

Although Rochester started the season 0-4 and needed to defeat Philadelphia on the last weekend of the season to grab the fourth and final playoff berth in the East Division, Stilley said he and his teammates remember the 15-7 defeat the Knighthawks laid on the Titans in Rochester on Feb. 21.

"They pretty much embarrassed us," Stilley said. "We expect a battle from them. I think it will be a typical National Lacrosse League playoff game and come down to one goal.''

With New York on top, in Stilley's view.

After playing on three title teams, Stilly has a feeling that the Titans are a team of destiny. In terms of trends, all three championship teams finished with 10-6 records, like the Titans, rather than the glistening 13-3 mark of, say, the 2004 Mammoth, who were upset in the first round of the playoffs.

"We've come together the last three weeks, which bodes well as opposed to starting hot out of gate and maybe fading," Stilley said. "It is nice to have that kind of edge going in. Knowing that we haven't played our perfect game yet, we can't really rest on our laurels. I mean we back-doored our way into the East Division championship. If you told me three weeks ago that we'd win the East and host a playoff game, I'd say you were crazy."

Goaltender Matt Vinc and the defense have been stingier amid the three-game winning streak, including a 41-save performance in a 12-9 win over Buffalo, and the offense has improved its depth, gaining consistent production from Jordan Hall, Ryan Boyle, Pat Maddalena, Brendan Mundorf and Mike McLellan.

"It is an atypical mix of Canadian and American players," said Stilley, a Philadelphia native. "It is players from two countries working together, 25 guys really playing well together."

Prior to leaving a one-year retirement to join the Titans, Stilley heard about the team's special bond under coach Adam Mueller and was eager to join the group when new coach Ed Comeau came calling.

"Ed came in and didn't change it," Stilley said. "He didn't want to put his stamp on the team. He wanted to keep the synergy that had been developed. It has the same vibe as championship teams."

While it has taken Stilley time to get into a prime NLL fitness level after spending his brief retirement with his wife and young daughter and making strides in his sales career, he is grateful to Comeau for realizing there was gas left in his tank.

"Taking a year off makes me appreciate playing that much more," Stilley said.  "I appreciate the opportunity to play in this league more than I ever have. I've really been blessed and I'm so thankful to the organization."

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