May 11, 2012

RIT's Russell Rewarding Unsure Coaching Staff

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Tyler Russell wasn't able to get on the field much during his first two seasons with RIT, amassing only six goals in 17 games. After seizing his opportunity as the team's lefty finisher in 2010, he has 115 goals, helping the Tigers go 34-3 over a two-year period.

Jake Coon didn't know what to think about Tyler Russell.

It was 2010, and Coon had just taken over as head coach at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He had a pretty good team – the Tigers went 14-6 in that first season led offensively by the likes of Iric Bressler, Jordan MacIntosh and Sean Gillies – but there was an underlying uneasiness with the Russell, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound lefty finisher.

"I had concerns about him being a team guy," said Coon. "He's got a little chip on his shoulder, and I like that in players, but I wasn't sure how to take it, especially being the new coach. It was more me being new and him being him. He's kind of got a quiet confidence about him. I just didn't know how to read him at first."

Russell earned a little bit of playing time his first season under then head coach Gene Peluso, mostly on man-up, finishing with three goals and two assists in 11 games. With Gillies filling the lefty-finisher role, Russell got hardly any burn his sophomore year, seeing the field in just six of the 20 games.

"I had a chip on my shoulder because I've never been used to not playing," Russell admitted. "Not playing as much my sophomore year as my freshman year was kind of downer. So I was just trying to prove myself. I wanted to show the guys at practice that I might not be playing as much as the starters, but I can get the job done."

Russell made a name for himself at Livonia High School, a relatively new program located about 30 miles south of Rochester. He finished with most of the school's scoring records, but didn't get a whole lot of interest by top tier Division III programs. St. John Fisher wanted him, but he finally opted to attend RIT because of a generous academic scholarship he received. Despite some hesitation over concerns about balancing academics with athletics, he decided to walk on with the Tigers.

"The more I got to know him and the more I learned why he had that chip, everything fell into place," said Coon. "In the long run, it motivated him. Now that I look back on it, he was probably pissed off that he wasn't playing, but he's not the type of kid who is going to come in and complain about it."

"Obviously, coming in as a first-year coach and having to learn everyone, and not just your starters, but all 45 guys on your team, it's hard," said Russell of Coon's challenge. "It's definitely possible to lose guys in the mix. I was trying to put my best foot forward."

With the graduation of Gillies, Russell's natural position opened up. Presented with the opportunity, he went after it hard and made the position his. Russell finished with a team-high 69 goals last season (and four assists), helping RIT finish with a 19-1 record and a spot in the national semifinals.

"He's a got a very good sense of the game," said Coon. "He knows where to be and when to be there. He somehow finds himself in open spots and somehow the ball finds him. I don't know a better way to explain it. We certainly try to set him up for shots, but at the same time during transition or broken plays and in settled offense, he knows where to be and how to get his shot off."

Granted, Russell was helped by being somewhat of an unknown entity in 2011.

"At the start of the season teams weren't focusing on me," Russell said. "MacIntosh, Bressler and Kelso Davis had been playing two or three years. Obviously, opposing teams thought they were the biggest threats, so they were keying on them. I'm more than willing to admit that I benefited from it. I also think it worked out well last year because the seniors I was playing with had faith in me and trusted me from practice and the little time I did play [sophomore year]."

This season, that has all changed. Russell is at the top of opponent's scouting reports, and is receiving the shutoffs and early slides that come with that honor.

"I kind of saw it coming," said Russell of the extra attention. "You don't put up that many goals and not expect it to happen. Being an off-ball guy and finisher, teams have come out with a short-stick shutoff on me in half the games. The defensemen won't slide off me. I usually see something different every game and I actually like it because it keeps me on my toes. It was tough to adapt to getting shutoff at first because I don't want to become invisible."

While Coon said there was an adaptation period, especially in the middle of this season, Russell has still been able to rack up the points. He has a team-high 46 goals and 54 points this season for the 15-2 Tigers, who will host Western New England in the second round of the NCAA tournament this weekend.

Coon and Russell are on the same page now, however, Russell has never heeded his coach's repeated requests to become more proficient at dodging. Coon lauds the quickness of Russell's stick and his ability to make something out of nothing on the crease – "Kind of garbage man" – but said Russell never took to the dodging role.

"He definitely has tried," said Russell of Coon's attempts to get him moving. "I'm one of those guys who knows his strengths. I'm confident in dodging, but I'd rather be an off-ball guy. I've been that way my entire life. It's something I have a knack for. He's a great coach, and he is trying to make his players more well-rounded. There's three weeks left in the season, so I'm not sure how much of a response he is going to get from me."

"We're still working on his dodging," said Coon with a laugh. "I don't know if it's going to happen in the next day or two, but we'll settle for good shooting."

It took a year, but Coon knows exactly what to think about Russell now.

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