February 11, 2009

Roughnecks Surge Behind Sanderson, Chemistry

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Josh Sanderson, who recently moved into fifth place on the NLL's all-time points list, says he's more comfortable in Calgary now. The 5-0 Roughnecks put their undefeated mark on the line Saturday against surging Colorado.
© Cory Shannon

From healthy scratch to National Lacrosse League immortality, that is the road Josh Sanderson has traveled the past 11 years.

Sanderson did not break the dress-out lineup for parts of his first two seasons with Rochester, playing only four games in 1998 and five in 1999. Yet today, he ranks No. 5 all-time in points, behind John Tavares, Gary Gait, Colin Doyle and John Grant Jr.

Sanderson had a goal and four assists in Calgary's 13-8 victory over Minnesota last Friday to move past Tom Marechek. With 777 points, he needs 35 to surpass Grant Jr., sidelined all season by an infection and knee injury.

"It is an honor to be up there with JT, Gary Gait, Junior, Marechek and all those guys,'' Sanderson said. "And I played with Colin. He's a good friend of mine. It comes from playing with good teammates and staying healthy. It is obviously something you look back on more when you're not playing, but just to be close to those guys is an honor.''

Sanderson, 31, couldn't imagine such company as a 5-foot-7, 150-pound rookie from the lacrosse hotbed of Orangeville, Ontario.

"I learned a lot back then,'' he said. "I was fortunate to play with the guys I played with.''

Saying he could name them all, Sanderson credits his reputation as an elite feeder to teammates' abilities to bury the ball. His 21 assists this season moved him past Jim Veltman and Gary Gait into No. 3 on the all-time assists list with 505, trailing Doyle's 534 and Tavares' 723.

"We had great chemistry,'' he said. "I wouldn't be talking about this without the guys I played with. They are a huge part of it.''

Colorado Mammoth coach Bob McMahon, whose team takes on the 5-0 Roughnecks on Saturday, has known Sanderson since he was 3 years old and coached him when he was 16.

“Josh is probably the best quarterback,’’ McMahon said. “He plays with such poise. He’s only 5-6 so teams always put their biggest defender on him. He doesn’t shy away from rough stuff, he doesn’t panic. He can hold the ball until the last split-second to find the open man with the best shot. People love to play with him because they know he’s going to get it to them.’’

With the left-handed Sanderson and the right-handed Tracey Kelusky combining for 18 goals and 41 assists, Calgary is the NLL’s only undefeated team.

"Our team is tough to check,'' Sanderson said. "Tracey sees the floor as good as anybody. He's a premier guy in this league and he's a great captain, so with him going the way he's playing and staying healthy, our offense is rolling.''

Though the Rouchnecks' five wins have all come against teams currently with losing records, they face off Saturday against the surging Colorado Mammoth (3-2) at the NLL West Division's loudest arena, Pepsi Center, averaging 16,248 fans.

"I like Colorado's team. It is a good, solid lineup and it's a tough place to play,'' Sanderson said. "We beat them in the quarters last year, so I'm sure they want a piece of us. We expect it to be the toughest game of the year so far.''

Sanderson, who came to Calgary via trade from Toronto late last season, is better adjusted to his surroundings.

"I feel more comfortable this year than at anytime last year,'' he said. "Last year, we were playing pretty good, now we're better. Thinking back, last year we had some guys that aren't as committed to winning as we are now. I look up and down the lineup and even the guys that are not playing, every single one of them wants to win. Last year, I don't think I could have said that.''

In a sport where players are scattered in different cities during the week and practices are limited to one per week, the commitment of which Sanderson speaks is conditioning, stick skills and mental focus.

"It is about taking the game away from the rink,'' he said. "It is about putting in the work, whether you are living in Calgary, Vancouver or Toronto. You can tell they care. They care what happens. They care when they win and they care when they lose. It is a good feeling right now to have such a dedicated group. They take the game home from the rink and they think abut it.''

From his Rochester beginnings, Sanderson has played for Albany and San Jose, before arriving in Toronto. In 2005, he helped the Rock win the NLL title, racked up 102 points, set the NLL single-season assists record with 71 helpers and scooped up 112 loose balls.

He still lives in a Toronto suburb and works at a nearby sporting goods store with his father, Terry, Calgary’s defensive coordinator.

Understandably, he still follows the Rock, who started slowly, fired coach Glen Clark and replaced him with Jamie Batley, who earned his first win last Saturday over Edmonton.

"I think they are going to make the playoffs, and once you make the playoffs anything can happen,'' Sanderson said of Toronto.

As for the West Division, it is too early to detect a hierarchy, according to Sanderson.

"The only team struggling right now is Edmonton,'' he said. "Minnesota could easily heat back up. You've got to be ready any given night. We still have to play Edmonton twice in their barn. We're not going to count anybody out. Right now, everything is going good, but if we drop a couple, we're right back in the pack."

Certainly, Sanderson speaks from the perspective of a guy who has been at the bottom of the standings and has watched from the press box.

Certainly, he plays like he never wants a return trip.

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