2/21/2018 4:19:00 PM / John Gurtler
Previously in Banditland...
Following their convincing 18-9 victory over the defending NLL champs from Georgia, the Bandits are riding a four-game winning streak and sit on top of the East Division standings with a 6-3 record.
Coming off their third bye week, the players had a chance to heal their hurts and work on game rudiments in a weekend practice on the turf of the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena in Hagersville, Ontario.
Having crossed the halfway point of the season, the Bandits face a very tough schedule in front of the usual suspects, with games against Saskatchewan and Calgary, as well as Colorado, Georgia, New England, Toronto and Rochester.
The entire Bandits roster of 28 players, (including four on injured reserve and three practice players), have a specific responsibility to keep each other focused on the next game, which is Saturday at home against Rochester.
And that is a challenge, what, with the start and stop of the Bandits schedule that has featured five bye weeks. But I like their confidence, attitude and conviction. Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich does too, but he is always tweaking to be better.
"It's a good group, the guys get along real well, but you’re always looking to see if you can improve," Dietrich, now into his sixth season at the helm, said.
"We are always looking to get younger. I think the trade with Pat Saunders and Thomas Hoggarth gave us a little more youth, and more size out our back end. He's another kid that once he gets more confidence, you'll see a lot more transition and you'll see a great solid defensive player. "
And it was a surprise to Dietrich when he got the call from Vancouver on Super Bowl Sunday.
"Yes, I was surprised to get the call about Pat and Hoggarth to be available. Thomas Hoggarth is a kid that we've been looking at for over a year, trying to get. Every time Vancouver called asking about Tony Malcolm, Thomas Hoggarth and Jordan Durston were always the two names out of my mouth. To be able to get both of them now, I am real happy.
"It's tough to trade because everybody is so close in the standings and the only time you are going to make a trade, like what we did, is if you have a surplus of something that another team values, and they have something you value. Then that makes for an easy trade."
With four rookies on the active roster and a handful of others with limited games, the Bandits sometimes are between a rock and hard place.
"The vets are composed and the young guys are running around some," noted Dietrich. "Obviously we would like to get better out the backend. But I like our defense and I like the fact that we are young.
"Troy and Richie's defensive system is not an easy system to get your head around, so it takes you a while; it’s all about trust. We are starting to come around, but we still give up way too many shots. The coaches are assuring me over and over that things are coming.”
And you can see it with the defense, especially with the second and third year players, and trusted veterans.
"I thought Mitch de Snoo had a remarkable rookie year,” Dietrich said. “I think we probably played him too much in tough situations last year, but this season, he has been great. And Justin Martin is just so steady. He does a great job.
"Nick Weiss to me has been our defensive MVP, and not only because of the transition where he has been scoring, but he is so good back there, communicating with the guys and he is such a great leader."
Kevin Brownell, now into his sixth season, is a solid veteran with six goals, 57 loose balls and 12 caused turnovers.
But the backbone of the defense and leadership is their captain, Steve Priolo, who has played in every game for the last six seasons and always leads the way in scooping loose balls, big hits and caused turnovers.
"It's easy to talk about Steve Priolo, and I am not trying to overlook him. I think we take him for granted because he is going to be fantastic every night he is on the floor,” Dietrich said. “You look at the new guys like Zac Reid, Reid Acton and Liam Patten, Ryan Wagner, and Ethan Schott. They've done a fantastic job."
After playing 18 NLL seasons between the pipes, which earned him MVP honors, Dietrich knows the ups and downs of being a goaltender all too well, hence the empathy for Alex Buque.
"It's always tough, especially as a goaltender when you come to a new team, playing in a new defense, and being a young kid like Buque still is, you are going to be inconsistent," said Dietrich. "And that is what you are going to get from younger players. I think he is starting to get comfortable with the defense that is in front of him, and the way that Richie and Troy play the system, so he's good. "
And to have another goaltender in Zach Higgins is a real plus, fresh off his 54-save performance against Georgia.
"I like what Higgins has brought off the bench. He won the game for us in Saskatchewan. I'm still a big believer in Dave DiRuscio, and now we are going to have a tough decision of three capable goaltenders.”
Now, onto the Bandits offense, which is becoming finely tuned. But it starts with the guys who scramble and muck, pushing guys out of the way, setting picks, and, scoring too.
"To me, our offense clicks because of Craig England and Jordan Durston. They are the two unsung heros, and they make a lot of things go that people don't see and maybe don't get the points or goals, but they are doing all the garbage to get the big guys the ball," quipped Dietrich.
"I think we have a great complement on the left with Josh Byrne, Mitch Jones and Jordan Durston. And we have the same compliment on the other side with Dhane Smith, Callum Crawford, and Craig England. And Vaughn Harris and Chase Fraser. I like the dimension that Chase gives us. Such an athletic kid. He can rifle the ball from the outside and is fearless getting inside." And that low lightning fast shot of Harris.
There is enough pressure living up to the first-overall draft choice status in a league that has a lot of powerful veterans. The Bandits first overall pick last fall, Josh Byrne, is making his case for Rookie of the Year.
"I think he deferred a little bit at the beginning of the year. He came in as a rookie and deferred and didn't realize he's played against all these guys in the WLA in the summertime," said Dietrich. "I think you’re seeing now he's become a lot more comfortable with the guys. He is starting to take more ownership on the floor and the goals are starting to come for him."
It's good, too, that the greatest player of all time, John Tavares, is sharing his secrets and teaching the offensive players.
"I think John Tavares does a great job for us, setting up plays on the bench. There are no me guys on our offense; the guys on offense don't really care who gets the ball," said Dietrich.
"You watch, when Josh Byrne scores, Dhane is happier for Josh than when he scores. It's a good group, an unselfish group, but we still have a lot of growing to go here - its a long year, but they are pretty impressive."
And Scott Loffler, the Bandits director of lacrosse operations, deserves credit for getting some of the guys in the community and living here in Buffalo.
"I think you really have to give props to Scott Loffler, who brings a lot of these guys in town to live and puts them into the Bandits School Program,” Dietrich said. “The camaraderie and friendship they build off the floor is great.
So what happens next as the Bandits prepare for the second half of the season, knowing what is at stake? Not only for the players but the Bandits’ reputation: The playoffs and progression.
"When you have nine teams, there is a lot of good talent spread around. The old saying anybody can beat anybody on any given night, it's so true,” Dietrich said. “One week we lose to Vancouver at home and the next week we beat Saskatchewan on the road.
"You win a game and lose a game, and you may go from first to third or second to fourth. Every team is good. Every team has their star players, and it seems every team has an unbelievable offense, so you got to be read to play every night."
And that night can't come soon enough.
While Saturday night's game against Rochester is the third of four meetings this season (the series is 1-1), this is the first visit to Buffalo for the Knighthawks and Banditland take note: This is a very good team.
Currently on a two-game winning streak with big victories over Georgia and Saskatchewan, the Knighthawks have, too, bunches of offensive power, led by Hamburg native and former Bandit Joe Resetarits with 20 goals and 30 assists for 50 points. Cody Jamison is having a strong season with 15 goals and 33 assists. Kyle Jackson (20+14), Cory Vitarelli (16+13), Dan Dawson (9+17) and rookie Austin Shanks (9+12) round out the scoring.
Resetarits is sixth in league scoring, Jamison is eighth and Shanks is second in rookie scoring – 15 points behind Byrne.
Scott Campbell leads all defensive players in scoring (4+11) – one point ahead of Weiss. The K-Hawks trio of Graeme Hossack, Jake Withers and Luc Magnan are strong on defense. Transition player Brad Gillies is back in the lineup.
And Saturday will mark the return of former Bandits captain Billy Dee Smith who will be in the visitors’ dressing room at KeyBank Center for the first time in his 16-year playing career.
Goaltender Matt Vinc leads the way with a .787 save percentage and a 4-5 record.
The K-Hawks have the best penalty-killing unit in the league at 56 percent, and is second on the power play at 61 percent.
Saturday night's game at KeyBank Center will feature the third Bandits Alumni Night.
Scott Loffler has put another festive evening together for the players of the past 26 seasons, which in addition to coaches Troy Cordingley, Richie Kilgour and John Tavares, is set to include Darris Kilgour, Drew Candy, Paul Day, Randy Mearns, Dean Cecconni, Tom Montour, and Glen Lay, among others.
I am sure more names will be added as we grow closer to game night. Each former player will be introduced onto the turf before the start of the game, lining up to root the current team onto victory against the Thruway rival Knighthawks.
It will be great to hear Bandits public address announcer Chris Swenson introduce all of the alumni as he did when they played. “Swennie,” the Voice of the Bandits is now into his 27th straight season.
There will also be an autograph session up on the concourse with the alumni.
Saturday night's radio broadcast will be on ESPN 1520 AM here in Buffalo and 105.9, WGWE FM in Salamanca. The pregame show will start at 7 p.m. Dhane Smith will be our “Player Perspective” guest and we’ll get back to the 1-on-1 with Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley.
Randy Mearns joins me in the booth and Dave Buchanan will be between the benches. The game is set for 7:30, but plan on arriving a little early for the Bandits Alumni Night introductions on the field.
The game will be carried on NLLTV.com and on CBS Sports Digital through a subscription service.