January 15, 2013

Stealth's Quick Start an Early-Season NLL Story

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

The Stealth's Cliff Smith has provided some nice early season production for Washington through the first two weeks of the NLL season.
© Brad Husick / Washington Stealth

Chris Hall is not about to start planning a parade route just yet but it's easy to tell from the tone of satisfaction in the voice of the head coach of the Washington Stealth that he's completely satisfied with his team's 2-0 start to the new NLL season.

''Everything we needed to have happen happened,'' he said. ''That's rare in my experience. It's a great start to the season. Hopefully, it's going to continue and we'll have an outstanding season. So far, so good.''

Remember, Washington was 4-12 and the only team of the league's nine to miss the playoffs last spring. So, 2-0 is looking mighty fine. To top it off, no other West team has a win so Hall's crew is two full games ahead of the pack.

Ahead of the pack is exactly where Cliff Smith is in the league scoring race. Smith leads the NLL in goals with seven and in points with 15.

''I've watched him for a long time and thought he was a beautiful lacrosse player,'' Hall said. ''I thought he could be something special when he came out of junior. We've always had our eye on him.''

Smith was draft-eligible in 2009, when the Stealth did not have a first-round pick and watched enviously as Colorado selected the native of Surrey, British Columbia, via Denver University fourth overall.

''We pursued him pretty hard to get him out of Denver because we knew Cam Sedgwick was retiring and we needed another player to support Lewis Ratcliff on the left side,'' Hall said. ''We decided the guy we wanted was Cliff Smith.''

Colorado had a ton of talent on the left side, and was about to draft Adam Jones, so agreed to a trade with the Stealth to get Joel Dalgarno, Ian Hawksbee and a third-round draft pick for the six-foot-three Smith on March 15, 2011. Smith's NLL role had yet to be clearly defined but Hall began easing him into the attack late that season. He only got into Washington's first seven games last year.

''He was finding his niche but then he injured his shoulder and it was the end of his season,'' Hall said. ''He took the year off from summer lacrosse and we chatted several times.

''I told Cliff that, with the retirement of Sedgwick, I wanted him to play pure offense for us this year. He could plan his offseason with that in mind. He could come into camp knowing he was going to be a pure offensive player and a power-play player. He had a clear vision for himself and we had a clear vision of what we wanted from him. He sure delivered in the first two games.''

Add righties Rhys Duch and Athan Iannucci and Washington has one of, if not the very best, top-four attacks in the NLL. Duch has six goals, Ratcliff has five and Iannucci has two so far. Add Smith's seven and that's 20 goals from the big four in just two games. The support cast consists of Dean Hill, who already has four goals, Brett Bucktooth and rookie Kyle Buchanan.

''The chemistry of the offense has been outstanding so far. Everybody is happy. There doesn't seem to be any ego problems."

— Washington coach Chris Hall

''The chemistry of the offense has been outstanding so far,'' Hall said. ''Everybody is happy. There doesn't seem to be any ego problems. They're getting along well. Success is a good thing.''

It helps that Bob Snider's 43 faceoff wins and 30 loose ball pickups are tops in the league.

It also helps to have a reliable backup goalie and free-agent pickup Nick Patterson is all of that for the Stealth. Tyler Richards got the win in the curtain-raising victory over Rochester and it would have been logical to expect to see him in the crease again for Game 2. But Patterson, who hadn't been seen in the NLL since being released by Minnesota one game into 2012, was given the start in Denver last weekend. He came out on top. Being away for a year was beneficial for Patterson, Hall said. He returned with a renewed focus.

''We wanted to have a look at Nick early,'' Hall said. ''We wanted to find out if what he showed in training camp is what we have. There's never a better time to find those things out than early in your schedule.''

The most substantial roster changes have been on the back end where rookies Mitch McMichael, Tim Henderson, Tyler Garrison and Justin Pychel are showing they belong. David Joyce and Pat O'Meara are reading to do the same when they get the chance.

''McMichael is one of those multi-talented guys who can do anything,'' Hall said. ''As an undrafted free agent, he was a great signing for us. Tim Henderson is a big raw talent who has played two solid games for us. He's a punishing defender. He's incredibly quick and strong for his size. Game by game he's going to improve. Tyler Garrison is a top-quality lacrosse player and he's fit right into the lineup right away. And Justin Pychel got his feet wet in Denver.''

Pychel fought Mammoth veteran Mac Allen with three seconds remaining in Washington's 17-13 win Saturday.

''We're blending them in with the veterans,'' Hall said of his eager rookies. ''It's a real good blend of top-notch experienced guys with high-energy, aggressive, strong rookies. It's been a really good mix.''

The Stealth will be looking to go to 3-0 when they play a home game against Edmonton at 6 p.m. ET Sunday, and Rush defenders will have their hands full trying to check Ratcliff, Duch, Iannucci and a new scoring threat for the Stealth, Cliff Smith.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.

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