March 25, 2011

Stevens on National Lacrosse League: Anatomy of the NLL's Fiercest Defense

by Neil Stevens |

Bob Watson, the whip behind Toronto's disciplined pressure defense, will retire after this season. "Every time I leave an opponent's building I realize it's probably the last time there," he said. "I just try and take a few extra minutes to soak in a little extra before I leave the floor knowing that every time out now is the last time."

© Rich Barnes

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Pat Merrill, Cam Woods, Phil Sanderson, Sandy Chapman, Stephen Hoar -- the list of standout Toronto Rock defensemen goes on and on, which explains why the Rock has the No. 1 defense to go along with the top record in the National Lacrosse League.

These guys hit hard and push opponents into low-percentage outside shooting positions and, if a scoring chance does transpire, Bob Watson, the best clutch goalie in the world, is waiting to make the stop.

The defensive system currently being used by the Rock actually is an offshoot of the one devised in Buffalo after Troy Cordingley became an assistant to Bandits head coach Darris Kilgour in 2003. It was in full bloom when Buffalo won the Champion's Cup in 2008.

Cordingley used a variation of it in Calgary, capping his two-year stay as head coach there with the 2009 title, and he implemented it again after being named Toronto's head coach prior to the 2010 season. It helped the Rock get to the final last spring and it has been an integral part of the team's success this year.

"It is a pressure defense," saud Terry Sanderson, who has the rare dual portfolio of GM and assistant coach so he can help Cordingley with the defense on the bench. "We've made some modifications to it because other teams catch on to where the pressure is going to be coming from. Without giving everything away, we pressure in certain areas.

"Some other teams are using pressure defenses, but they have different approaches. Our pressure is different from that of other teams. I know Buffalo, Calgary and Rochester use pressure defenses, but everybody has a different take on it."

The beauty of the Rock defense is that every player in it is an equal.

"In our system, no one guy is more important than another," Sanderson said. "If one guy isn't doing his job, the defense can break down.

"Some teams like to have a shut-down defensive guy to stop a player like a Lewis Ratcliff. Our defense is a five-man unit where one man is no more important than the rest."

The scorers get most of the recognition after win, but the defense is just as responsible for many of Toronto's victories.

Stephen Hoar, an eight-year NLL vet who is a 6-foot-2, 215-pound force, has been scoring some key goals in transition. He also handles most of the Rock faceoffs.

"He's been outstanding," Sanderson said. "He's been our most improved player over last year, offensively and defensively. He's arguably been our best defensive player all year."

Sandy Chapman, a 10-year NLL player who was the league's defenseman of the year in 2010, and 13-year vet Phil Sanderson are a pair of persistent, 5-foot-9 checkers who know Cordingley's pressure system better than most because, as well as playing for him in the NLL, they played on the Brampton team in the Ontario summer league coached by Cordingley and Terry Sanderson.

"They've been around it the longest and have had more time with it," said Terry Sanderson, who is Phil's uncle.

Cam Woods is a perfect fit for the Rock system. The 12-year vet is another former NLL Defenseman of the Tear. He's a 6-foot-3, 195-pound obstacle to the net and ''a great pressure guy who is strong, fast and quick."

There's a ton of experience on Toronto's back end.

About the Author

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli -- a longtime LM contributor -- are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame. Check for more.

Hard-nosed, 6-footer Pat Merrill is in his ninth NLL campaign.

"Not only does he play our defense system well, he brings a lot of other things in ways of leadership and how he conducts business," Sanderson said. "I'm glad he chose us over the other teams that were after him after he became a free agent last year."

Phil Sanderson, Chapman and Merrill were on Toronto's 2005 championship team, which was coached by Terry Sanderson. They parted company with the Rock and were reacquired by Sanderson after he was named GM in 2009 after his two years assisting Cordingley on the bench in Calgary.

The younger Rock defensemen also make big contributions.

Five-year pro Mike Hobbins is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound defender who has appeared in every game last year and again this year, which speaks volumes for his consistently good play on a talent-stacked back end.

Rob Marshall, who has played only for the Rock since entering the NLL in 2006, was a healthy scratch for a couple of early-season games, but the 6-foot-3, 185-pound defenseman "has come back and been a very good player for us."

"We would like to see him score more in transition and those chances are coming more and more," Sanderson said.

Drew Petkoff, 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, is in his second NLL season and is "probably the fastest guy we have on our 'D.' He's very strong. When Drew is focused on the job at hand, he is the best athlete we have on our team at either end."

Jeff Gilbert, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, has yet to match in this his third NLL season what he accomplished last year.

"Sometimes guys try too hard and maybe overthink things," Sanderson said. "We sat him out for a game and he's bounced back well."

Creighton Reid, 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, showed up at training camp before the 2010 season as an undrafted rookie and made the team. He's dressed for every game this year.

"You can attribute that to hard work," Sanderson said.

Glen Bryan, 22, is the youngest of the group. The 5-foot-9 rookie had to wait his turn to get into the lineup.

''The difference between juniors and the pros is night and day," Sanderson said. "He's never had to defend against men before, so he just has to get stronger. His game smarts are as good as any we have on our back end."

With a group this good, competition for floor time is intense, which keeps every player on his toes.

"It takes time to learn and to understand the system," said Phil Sanderson. "Guys bought into the system again this season and when we come to work we are successful."

Unlike most other NLL teams, Toronto does not identify any of its players with a "T" for transition.

There were 11 Rock players with a "D" for defense beside their names for the last game.

"Why people think there's a difference between transition and defense in our league, I don't get it," Terry Sanderson said. "If a guy is playing defense and runs the ball up the floor, that's a player in transition, and all our defensemen can carry the ball up the floor."

Watson has the NLL's best save percentage and best goals against average among first-stringers.

"Bobby has been Bobby," Phil Sanderson said. "He has been doing this for the greater part of his career, so it is no surprise to me how well he's been playing."

Watson is 40 and said this will be his last NLL season.

"Every time I leave an opponent's building I realize it's probably the last time there," he said. "I just try and take a few extra minutes to soak in a little extra before I leave the floor knowing that every time out now is the last time."

The Toronto-at-Calgary showdown Friday night will be a highlight of the NLL season. The Rock, 9-2, is atop the East and the Roughnecks, 8-3, are first in the West. There was one previous meeting this season, and Toronto won 9-8 in overtime at home on Feb. 9.

"Obviously you can tell by scores of their games that they are a highly explosive team," Terry Sanderson said. "We will be, without question, pushed to see just how good our defense is. We're not intimidated by them but are respectful of the fact they have tremendous offensive power."

Fans can expect the NLL's No. 1 defense to have a lot to do with the outcome.

Toronto has a league-best goals against average of 9.18, followed by Boston at 9.27, Buffalo at 9.3, Rochester at 10.7, Minnesota at 10.9, Calgary at 11.2, Philadelphia at 11.4, Colorado at 11.7, Washington at 12.3 and Edmonton at 13.4.

The Rock will hold a ceremony to honor Watson before the final regular-season game April 8.

"We're very fortunate to have him for the rest of the season, and it's going to be very difficult to replace him," Cordingley said.

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