March 1, 2011

Stevens on NLL: Benesch Reaches Heights Some Doubted He Would Attain

by Neil Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Swarm forward Ryan Benesch, a one-time No. 1 draft pick, has found his niche in Minnesota with 25 goals already this season.

Ryan Benesch is in his fifth National Lacrosse League season, and he's already been traded three times.

So, what's the Minnesota Swarm forward doing tied for the NLL lead in goals scored with 25 at the season's midpoint?

What he's doing is proving correct those who predicted big things for him when he was drafted first overall in 2006.

Benesch did not hesitate with his reply when asked during an interview if he's having a good time playing lacrosse this winter.

"Definitely," he said. "I'm definitely having a good time. It's my team. We're so close. I've never been part of a team where the players have been this close. We do a lot of things together. We all hang out after practices and games. There are no cliques. We're all just one big family."

Minnesota, in second place in the West Division with a 4-4 records, begins the second half of its season with a game at Colorado on Friday night.

Benesch has scored 25 goals in eight games and is tied for the league lead with Boston's Casey Powell, who has played nine games.

"I owe a lot of the credit to the guys I play with, because they get me the ball and set picks for me," Benesch said. "A lot of the credit, too, goes to the coaches. They have faith in me. They let me shoot the ball and they don't yell at me if I make a play that doesn't pan out."

Benesch is 26 and lives in Guelph, which is west of Toronto, and it takes 45 minutes to get to Pearson International Airport to commute to Swarm games with teammates Andrew Watt, Aaron Wilson and Kevin Ross. Mondays through Thursdays, Benesch works as a carpenter mainly doing finishing work in new subdivisions.

There has been a distinct change in the last year for the 5-foot-9 forward called Bennie by his teammates.

"I'm more consistent," he said. "The first couple of years was hit and miss. I had some good games and I had some really awful games.

"Now I'm more consistent. I come better prepared now. I understand what it's going to take to win games and be a star in this league instead of being just another player. With teams dropping out, and with expansion and dispersal drafts, you never know if you're going to have a spot so you have to work at it."

Benesch was the first player picked in the 2006 entry draft, but before he got to play a game for San Jose, he was traded that December along with Chad Thompson and Kevin Fines to Toronto for 2005 league MVP Colin Doyle. Benesch played well for the Rock -- so well, in fact, that his 33-goal season earned him the 2007 NLL Rookie of the Year Award. His sophomore pro season was another story entirely. He scored 19 goals and twice was a healthy scratch.

"I'm not really too sure," he replied when asked why things didn't pan out in Toronto. "I thought after my first season, winning rookie of the year, that things would be good in Toronto.

"I guess [then-head coach] Glenn Clark and I kind of butted heads. There were bad decisions on my part and on their part. They wanted to move on. I have no hard feelings towards anybody. Me and Glenn made up. As long as I have a team to play for, I'm happy."

Toronto traded Benesch and Derek Suddons to Edmonton for first-round 2009 and second-round 2010 draft picks. In 14 games in 2009 with Edmonton, Benesch scored 17 goals.

Edmonton GM-coach Derek Keenan traded Benesch, Scott Self and its other first-round 2009 pick to Minnesota for Ryan Ward, Justin Norbraten and two players, Scott Stewart and Richard Morgan, the Swarm had just selected in the dispersal draft of Portland players.

"It was brief," Benesch said of his time with the Rush. "Every coach has players he likes and wants on his team. Again, I hold no grudges. I wasn't meant to be there and I got moved to Minnesota, where I'm happy to be."

He admits that it was at times discouraging to be bounced around. His sense of humor helped him move on.

"I kind of laughed about it," he said. "My buddies from work would crack jokes, call me Suitcase. I laughed at it. I figured I'd just keep playing, keep trying my hardest, and I'd land on a team that wants me to stay there for a while."

That would be the Minnesota Swarm. Benesch signed a three-year deal with GM Marty O'Neill last October, and he loves playing for head coach Mike Lines.

"He's a great guy, a great coach," Benesch said. "He doesn't yell at us a whole lot. If we screw up, he knows we already know we've screwed up, so he doesn't have to cut us down. He lets you bounce out of your funk and do your thing."

Benesch said what he likes most about the NLL is the travel and the new people he meets just about every week.

"I have friends on every team in the league," he said. "Every time I play a team there's somebody I know from somewhere. We understand that on the floor we have to put our friendships aside, but after the game it's always great to go to the bar and have a beer and catch up on how everybody is doing."

Like his NLL peers, it is at times frustrating to realize how many in the mainstream media ignore lacrosse.

"Everybody in the lacrosse community wants the sport to be televised more," he said. "We want to be in the papers. We want people to know what lacrosse is. It's picking up, but it's not where we want it to be yet. Maybe someday our highlights will be getting seen on nightly sports shows as part of the highlights package."

One of the reasons for Minnesota's first-half success has been the solid goaltending of Nick Patterson.

"Unbelievable, to say the least," Benesch said of his goalie's play.

When asked to name a team that has impressed him this season, he opted for the Philadelphia Wings.

"Everybody expects Toronto and Boston to be great, and they are, but Philadelphia is the one that's surprising a lot of people," he said. ''They're turning some heads. Nobody can take them for granted."

Benesch had his eye on No. 17 when he prepared to break into the NLL, but when he got to Toronto, the number had been snapped up by Fines.

"Ever since then, I've been 21," he said.

Having finally found a lacrosse home, the all-star with the sweet shot is enjoying the most productive season of his NLL career.

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. Catharines, Ontario.

Check throughout the season for more from Stevens and coverage of the NLL.

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