February 23, 2011

Stevens on NLL: Washington Stealth Poised for Big Second Half

by Neil Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

"He's determined to be the best lacrosse player in the world, indoor and outdoor," Washington head coach Chris Hall says of transition man Paul Rabil.

© Richard Olson

Don't let the Washington Stealth's 4-5 record fool you.

Don't assume that because they are sub-.500 and languishing in the middle of the pack in the West Division, that there's no way they can repeat as National Lacrosse League champions.

Take a look instead at the score of their last game, a 20-7 home-floor wipeout of the Colorado Mammoth.

"We've found ourselves a little bit," said head coach Chris Hall.

Consider also that high-scoring Jeff Zywicki and defense stud Kyle Sorensen will soon be back in the lineup after lengthy injury absences.

The Stealth, in fact, are supercharged to do some damage in the second half of their schedule, which concludes advantageously with four of their last six games at home.

Hall is the first to admit that 4-5 doesn't hint at greatness.

"Obviously, mediocre right now," he said when asked to define his team's win-loss record. "I think we're a bit of a product of some injuries and a bit of a product of the entry draft and dispersal draft and, if you combine all of those together and the fact we were champions last year so everybody is geared up pretty strong when they play us, put all that into the mix and we're 4-5."

As far as the injuries go, few other NLL teams have been afflicted like the Stealth. Goaltender Tyler Richards (groin) wasn't right when the season began and Zywicki (lower body), Sorensen (knee), Joel Delgarno (lower body) and Peter Morgan (concussion) took turns having their names etched into the injured list. Delgarno returned last weekend.

"We couldn't use Tyler at all in our first three games," Hall said. ''We lost a couple of close ones in that space. When Tyler came back, he took another couple of games to get into game form. Our goaltending early on was a bit of an issue."

Losing Zywicki in the first game didn't help matters.

"It's a lot tougher to stop three big guns than two," Hall said. "Zywicki was a leader for us on the offense and anchored our power play. Losing him hurt us. At the other end, the loss of Kyle Sorensen was very big. He's the anchor and the leader back there. That's been an issue we've had to battle through.

"We lost a couple of games early on when we didn't execute our plays well enough and our shooting was poor. That's how you get to 4-5 in this league. It's such a narrow margin between losing and winning that, with the combination of things I talked about, that puts you on the wrong end of those close games more often than it does on the right side."

Despite all of this, Washington's 12.8 goals per game rank No. 1 among NLL offenses heading into March.

Rhys Duch has scored 24 goals, trailing only Boston's Casey Powell and Minnesota's Ryan Benesch, who have 25 each, and is on target for his most productive pro campaign. Lewis Ratcliff has 52 points (19g, 33a) and trails only Powell (25g, 31a) and Boston's Dan Dawson (14g, 40a) in total points.

Hall knew he had to do something about his back end -- Washington is ninth out of 10 teams in goals against -- so he acquired Ian Hawksbee in a trade with Edmonton, sending Tyler Codron to the Rush.

"The defense was locked into playing defense and getting off the floor," Hall said. "That's not my idea of defense. We've tried to change that mindset, and it worked last game. We'll see going into the second of the season. Hopefully, we've turned the corner and we're starting to play like we did at the end of last year."

Washington's next game is March 5 in Edmonton. The Rush have already beaten the Stealth twice this year.

"Because we lost so many divisional games early, we're one of those teams that if we want to host playoff games, we have to put a string of wins together," Hall said. "Losing a third game in a row against Edmonton would not be a place to start that."

He's optimistic.

"If we can continue to get our game together in the last half, we still have the opportunity to win the division," he said.

The most perplexing issue surrounding the Stealth is attendance, which averages a league-low 3,993, and that's after winning the league championship. Colorado and Buffalo lead the way with 15,745 and 15,676 a game, respectively. Stealth owner Denise Watkins has been patient. She took the team to the Seattle region after it failed in San Jose, Calif.

"Denise is the finest owner I've worked for," Hall said. "She's totally dedicated to trying to make this work.

"If the Stealth were not to succeed in Everett, it would not be for the lack of over 100 percent effort from the ownership to make it a success. Her philosophy is that if you want to make it successful, you need to spend money. It truly is admirable that Denise is willing to spend money to ensure every possible effort has been made to make this a success. Our ownership is absolutely first class. I guess time will tell if this is the right place, but absolutely every effort that could be made to try and make this a success is being made in the community."

So, why does the NLL thrive in Denver and in Buffalo while other franchises struggle?

That's a million-dollar question.

"I've been around the game a long time and to try to figure out why some places are wildly successful and others aren't. Well, that is virtually impossible to figure out," Hall said.

While the Stealth have the weekend off, Hall, Duch, Ratcliff, Luke Wiles, Paul Rabil and Mike Grimes go to the all-star game Sunday at the Turning Stone resort in Verona, N.Y.

"It's nice to be recognized and an honor to coach these guys -- the best of the best," said Hall, who will be coaching in his fourth all-star game. "It's a great coach's treat to stand on the bench with the best lacrosse players on the planet. I always look forward to it. It's a special game."

As for Rabil, Hall can't use enough superlatives.

"He's improving by leaps and bounds. His play has been phenomenal the last three or four games. His play is really taking on the dimension of making him a phenomenal lacrosse player. He's determined to be the best lacrosse player in the world, indoor and outdoor, and he does everything possible to make that come to fruition."

Rabil is hard to stop, and the Stealth might be collectively hard to stop once they have Zywicki and Sorensen back on the floor.

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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