YOUNG NATIONALS PLAYOFF TESTED
8/25/11 11:00 AM
(Hamilton, August 25)… The Hamilton Nationals are by far the youngest team in the Major League Lacrosse Championship Weekend with only two players over the age of 30. On Saturday, they will take on a veteran Denver Outlaws team for the right to play for the Steinfeld Cup. Despite their inexperience in the MLL playoffs, Head Coach Regy Thorpe said success is determined by one major factor.
“It all comes down to leadership,” said Thorpe. “We have guys with a lot of playoff experience. As a coaching staff, we have been preparing them the last couple of weeks.”
That’s where “old timers” Sol Bliss (31), Brodie Merrill (29) and Casey Powell (35) prove more valuable than just their play on the field. All three players have MLL Championship rings in their possession and know how to win. Bliss and Merrill have been on the roster the entire season and groomed the young defense. Merrill was recently named the Warrior Defensive Player of the Year for a record sixth straight time and has been a steadying influence for the Nationals.
“Brodie has been invaluable on the field and in the locker room, working hard and leading the guys. Everyone is really buying into that,” said Thorpe. “He is extremely committed to the organization and excited to lead the guys into championship weekend.”
Powell, the league’s all-time point leader, was a trade deadline acquisition and played in the team’s final two games. Powell’s leadership was on display in the win on Long Island on August 13th, which propelled the Nationals into the playoffs.
“He was the most valuable player on the field,” said Thorpe. “He freed up players like (David) Earl, (Jeremy) Thompson and Cody Jamieson. He created a lot of opportunities and opened the other guys up.”
Yet, Thorpe’s team has an advantage when it comes to playoff acumen because of the junior and senior Canadian box playoff formats that can includes over 20 postseason games. In fact, eight Nationals are still playing in the Canadian Playoffs with six players competing at the Senior “A” level. Jordan Hall and Kevin Crowley are playing in the Western Lacrosse Association Finals with the New Westminster Salmonbellies. Crowley leads the WLA Playoffs witgh 37 points (14+23) in nine games.
Meanwhile, Jarrett Davis, Joe Walters and Kyle Rubisch of the Brampton Excelsiors are locked in a playoff battle with Geoff Snider and the Peterborough Lakers. The Excelsiors lead the Major League Lacrosse Finals two games to one. The busy schedule is no sweat for 22-year-old Rubisch.
“It’s a lot added up, but I love it,” said Rubisch, who might play five games this week. “Every time I can play is an honor. It has given me so much.”
The other players competing in the postseason are Brett Bucktooth and Thompson. The duo is members of the St. Regis Braves, who will begin the Senior “B” lacrosse President’s Cup Playoffs on Monday, August 29th.
Not to be overlooked, the Nationals have players with NCAA playoff experience at the highest level. The Class of 2011 includes five First Team All-Americans in Matt Dolente (Johns Hopkins), Kevin Ridgway (Notre Dame), Earl (Notre Dame), Jeremy Boltus (Army) and Crowley (Stony Brook). Additionally, the Nats have rookies David Burns, Bill Henderson, Stephen Keogh and first-year pros Jordan MacIntosh and Davis on their active roster.
Earl was named the Cascade MLL Rookie of the Week on August 15th after scoring three times and adding one assist in the Nats’ 14-8 win over Long Island. Boltus was recognized as well, but as the 2011 Cascade MLL Rookie of the Year after leading all MLL rookies with 30 points (19+11). He led the Nationals with a seven-game goal-scoring streak and a 12-game point streak.
When asked to identify his most outstanding rookie, Thorpe could not select just one first-year pro that has made a difference. That question is difficult to answer considering that Boltus, Earl and Crowley finished second, fifth and sixth on the team in points. Hamilton’s draft class has been so impressive that veteran lacrosse analyst Quint Kessenich called it the “best draft class in MLL history.
“It’s tough to pick just one because they have all chipped in,” said Thorpe, whose rookie class has scored 64 goals this season or nearly 50 percent of the team’s goals.
The Nationals are returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence. The Nats won the MLL title in 2009, which was their only other postseason berth. Hamilton (7-5) meets the Denver Outlaws (7-5) on Saturday, August 27th in a 3:00 p.m. semifinal showdown at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN 2 and ESPN3.com. Thorpe said the kids are hungry as they embark on their first professional championship weekend.
“They are not satisfied. We are 0-0,” said Thorpe. “They are excited to play and (try to) hoist the Cup.”