February 17, 2011

Stevens on NLL: Blazers Defense Deserves Credit for Turnaround

by Neil Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Jack Reid has enjoyed a breakout season on Boston's defense, with added responsibilities in the wake of John Orsen's season-ending foot injury.

The Boston Blazers are the hottest team in the National Lacrosse League. Boston's ugly 2-3 start is way behind it, and the Blazers are now sitting pretty at 5-3 after three consecutive wins.

"We were good in bits and pieces the first month, but our game wasn't consistent enough from start to finish," said head coach Matt Sawyer. "Consistency -- that's what we've brought to the table the last three games."

Boston begins its second half with a game against the Minnesota Swarm in St. Paul on Saturday night.

"Anthony Cosmo has been great in the net," Sawyers said, "and the whole team is getting better each time out. I thought all along that we'd see the best of the Boston Blazers in the second half of the season.''

Consistency, yes, and another big reason for the surge has been the defense -- not just Cosmo, but the entire corps of D-men. Boston's 8.8 goals against average is best in the league. Buffalo's 9.5 and Toronto's 9.6 are the only other teams yielding fewer than 10 goals per game.

The scorers get the glory week in and week out so, hey, it's time for the Blazers defenders to get some attention for their role in Boston's success despite the loss of John Orsen with a season-ending foot injury.

Fifth-year pros Mike Kirk and Jack Reid and four-year vet Mitch Belisle have the most experience among Boston's defensemen.

Kirk, 28, is the stay-at-home banger every team wants at the nucleus of its defence.

"Mike is steady," Sawyer said. "He's not flashy. He just gets it done. He's someone we rely on heavily."

Reid, 26, is more and more a factor as he realizes his vast potential.

"He's been in the league for a few years now and this is the best he's played," Sawyer said. "His responsibilities have increased with the injury to Orsen, and he's taken that and run with it."

The person Reid would most like to meet if he had the chance?

Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005), the American who created Gonzo journalism, wherein writers become part of their own story.

Belisle, 25, was a powerhouse in a big win over Colorado last weekend.

"He's a high-energy guy," Sawyer said. "As an assistant captain, he's a leader for us. His potential is sky-high. He's a smart guy. He's only going to get better."

Belisle's pick for person to meet?

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), the Italian who painted the Mona Lisa.

Third-year pro Greg Downing, 25, has been impressive on Boston's back end, too.

"Greg Downing is arguably our most improved player," Sawyer said. "He's really opened [the coaches'] eyes."

Second-year NLLers Jon Durno and Matt Abbott continue to improve.

Durno, 28, is quick to rush to the aid of teammates.

"He's a character guy," Sawyer said. "He gets by on hard work and knowing what it takes to be a good team player."

Abbott, 24, whose master's degree in finance suggests a lofty IQ, has a toolbox full of attributes on the green carpet.

"He's got a lot to learn in the box lacrosse game but he's got all the tools to succeed, and he's fast," Sawyer said.

Rookies Kyle Rubisch, 23, Damon Edwards, 22, and Ryan Dilks, 20, supply youthful enthusiasm.

"They give us a shot in the arm," Sawyer said.

Rubisch should get serious NLL rookie-of-the-year support.

"Kyle has been great," Sawyer said. "He's 23 but you'd think he's 33. He performs and carries himself like a veteran."

Kirk is from Orangeville, northwest of Toronto, where Sawyer and Blazers forward Josh Sanderson live. Durno and Edwards live on Toronto's eastern lakeshore, and Dilks is from Hamilton. As Canadians, they have deep box lacrosse roots. Durno also was a pro hockey player in the ECHL.

The Blazers' American defenders all have top-notch NCAA backgrounds. Belisle, from Maryland, was named USILA Defenseman of the Year in his senior season at Cornell. He and Orsen operate Trilogy Lacrosse. Reid, originally from Connecticut, starred at the University of Massachusetts. Abbott was a captain on his home-city Syracuse team that won a second straight NCAA Division championship in 2009. Downing, from Auburn, N.Y., was All-American midfielder at Fairfield.

Stand all of these guys in front of Cosmo, and you get a gauntlet of sticks and muscle that stops most attackers.

"Guys are doing a great job adapting to each other and buying into the system," Belisle said. "We also have the benefit of having one of the best goalies in the NLL and one of the hardest-working and most athletic groups in the league."

Cosmo has been at his best lately.

"He thought he was fighting the ball early in the season," Sawyer said. "It's a tough position to play. You're either the hero or the goat. He's a good one. He's on a bit of a roll right now.''

Kirk goes further.

"Easy," he replied when asked why his team has the lowest goals against average. "We have the best goalie in the league. When the defense breaks down, we have Coz making big saves for us each game."

There's no doubt that the Blazers are on a roll.

"We have been doing a good job of putting some pressure on the ball, which has forced guys to really work together so no one gets left out to dry," Belisle said. "Guys have done a great job of helping each other out and communicating, and our shut-down defenders have been doing just that on big matchups.

"There is always room for improvement. Like we say during timeouts, we're taking it one shift at a time, taking pride in each stop. When you focus on that, the wins will continue to come.''

Added Kirk: "The last three games have been won by hard work and the desire to get better. We have a long way to go before we reach our final goal but getting better each game is our main focus right now."

A tip of the hat to Boston's back end.

Neil Stevens has covered professional and Canadian summer lacrosse since 1971 for various media outlets, including the Canadian Press. He retired from the CP in 2008. That year, Stevens joined the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor -- as the only media members recognized by the National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame. He played from age 5 to 23, including three years in the junior ranks and one year (1969) as a professional in St. Catherines, Ontario.

Check laxmagazine.com/nll throughout the season for more from Stevens and coverage of the NLL.

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