Ward Steps In, Emerges as Canada's Next Goalie
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Team Canada coach Randy Mearns was asked about goalie Dillon Ward's performance and wondered aloud, "How many saves did he have?"
I think 17, someone said. "Well, we got a goaltender," Mearns replied.
It was really 18 stops, a stellar number for a player making his international debut against the U.S. in front of an announced crowd of 11,447 in the opening game of the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship.
Ward was Canada's star of the game, in a tilt that saw them go 31 straight minutes without a score and losing 10-7 after sprinting out to an early 3-0 lead. The U.S. outshot Canada 40-20 and 24-7 in a first half where Ward had nine saves, which he replicated in the second half. "We got 10 [goals]," Team USA head coach Richie Meade said. "We probably could have 15 or 16, but they had him."
"He was unbelievable, but that's what we expected," attackman Curtis Dickson said of Ward. "We know how good of a goalie he is. He put up huge numbers in school, and he's a heck of a goalie. Now he's doing it on the world stage, and letting everyone else see it."
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Ward made 18 saves in his FIL World Championship debut Thursday
night against Team USA. (Scott McCall)
The goalie position was one of uncertainty and still is an emotional topic for the Canada lacrosse program. All you had to do was see them practicing this week – wearing reversible red and white pinnies with the number 17 on the front and number 35 on the back, representing the jerseys and memories of Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller. The former Team Canada goalies passed away within the last three years from cancer; Sanderson in June 2012 and Miller in June of 2013.
All-World defenseman Brodie Merrill, who credits Sanderson with paving the way for his eventual NCAA field lacrosse career, wore 17 during Thursday's game and veteran faceoff man Geoff Snider donned the 35.
Is it coincidence Ward's jersey – 37 – includes one digit from each of them?
"Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller are smiling up top right now," Mearns said on the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park afterward.
Ward is atypical in his stance and size in goal. He's tall, 6-foot-5, and standing upright the top of his helmet rises above the crossbar. But it's not always that way. Team USA attackman Kevin Leveille, who snuck one goal past Ward with a crafty inside finish off a Rob Pannell feed, said "he has a strange form. He kind of crouches a little bit. We were trying to shoot off-stick side. I know we had a couple five-hole goals. He's a little bit different than what you're used to seeing with a really technical goalie who stays in his angles."
Team USA midfielder Paul Rabil said the offense would study more film on Ward if they are to see him again potentially in next Sunday's final.
Predictably, Ward's box lacrosse background growing up in Orangeville, Ontario, has something to do with that. Fans of Canadian Junior A ball are familiar with his talent — he won Minto Cup titles with the Orangeville Northmen in 2008, 2009 and 2012 and he's a three-time Robert Melville Memorial Award winner as the most outstanding goalie in the Junior A ranks.
"I like to use my size to my advantage. I had a lot of body saves. A couple off the chest, a couple off the leg," Ward said. "I'm used to playing big. It's something that American shooters are not used to seeing a goalie with such a wide base, and not taking a big step."
He was drafted by the NLL's Colorado Mammoth with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, the highest a goalie had gone since Gee Nash was the No. 2 pick behind John Grant Jr. in 1999.
But like Dickson said, Ward has put up impressive numbers in goal outdoors, too. In his senior season at Bellarmine, Ward led NCAA Division I men's lacrosse nationally with a 66.2 save percentage in 2013, and finished sixth in goals against average (7.68) to earn ECAC Goalie of the Year and third-team All American honors.
But coming into the world championship, Ward hadn't played much field game since then – other than a four-game stint with the Hamilton Nationals last season, serving as Brett Queener's primary backup.
"I've gotten more and more comfortable and making all those saves, you get more comfortable as the game goes on," Ward said. "It is a confidence-booster."
Back indoors, as part of a promotion with the Mammoth, fans submitted entries in a contest to pick what Ward's new signature should be. ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell even caught wind of the clever idea and traded tweets with Ward about it. Since then, he's narrowed it down to two possibilities after flipping through a thick packet of finalists this week. Whichever one he selects, Ward might now be using it more often.
Because Canada has found its next goalie.
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