5/5/2011 10:23:38 AM / Michael Jafari
For the first time in three seasons, the Buffalo Bandits have made it to the NLL’s Eastern Division Finals. Buffalo made it to the second round of the NLL playoffs by defeating the Boston Blazers by a score of 11-10 last Saturday.
One of the many reasons why the Bandits are having success this season is due to the team’s defense. Clay Hill has been a mainstay on the Bandits’ defensive unit since 2004, but Hill says this year’s team is much closer than it has been in years past.
“We’re a close group, but all the teams I played for in Buffalo are a close, family knit team,” said Hill. “I think this year is the closest team I’ve played on in a few years because we’ve got a great group of guys.”
In Hill’s seventh year with the Bandits this season, the team finished in first place in the East Division and is one win away from advancing to the championship game. Standing in Buffalo’s way is the Toronto Rock, and the two teams will square off in the Eastern Division Final this Saturday (May 7) at HSBC Arena. While Buffalo lost the final two regular season games leading up to the playoffs before defeating Boston in the first round, Hill says the team is ready for the next challenge.
“Everyone is confident. We lost the last couple of games, but we were a little unfocused, but we regained our focus. Sometimes you get a little overconfident, and you don’t work as hard as you should in practice, and I think that’s what happened. It happens to teams sometimes, but we’re back on track now.”
Despite finishing first in the East, Hill was quick to recognize that the climb to the championship will be a tough task.
“Everyone has been watching us all year and trying to figure us out, so we need to adjust our game a little bit and work harder. We just need to get back together and play Bandit ball to get to where we want to.”
Hill was involved with lacrosse long before the Bandits were even in existence. The defenseman grew up at the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario, Canada, where he was brought into the sport naturally. Lacrosse is an extremely popular sport where Hill is from, and since his relatives and friends played, it was easy for Hill to get in on the fun.
“My father played, and my family is a big lacrosse family, so I was just born into it, and I kept going from there,” recalled the defenseman. “It’s a great opportunity to play professional ball coming from a small town. It’s great because kids growing up see us, and it’s a big thing in our community, so it’s cool to get that support.”
Growing up around the sport benefited Hill, as he was named to Six Nations’ Junior-A Arrows team when he was an early teen. From there, Hill was selected by the Buffalo Bandits in the fourth round of the 1997 NLL Draft. Ironically, he first joined the team when both Darris and Rich Kilgour were still playing for the black and orange. Now the times have changed, and Hill is playing with the Kilgour brothers behind the bench as the team’s coaches. Despite the fact that they were his former teammates, the defenseman thinks Darris and Rich do a great job with the players as coaches.
“(Being former teammates) doesn’t cause conflict, because both Darris and Rich are great at their jobs and know how to turn it on,” said Hill. “They know when to be a coach, and they know when to be a friend, so they are great that way.”
Although he was drafted in 1997, Hill didn’t officially join the team until 2005. The opportunity came late for Hill, so he knew he had to stay in the best shape possible to hold his spot on the roster. Seven years later, Hill has not only held a roster spot, he is a constant contributor in the lineup.
“I had some personal stuff with my children, and I got a little busy with my work schedule. I took a few years off, but luckily Darris gave me a call a few years later, and it’s worked out from there,” recalled Hill. “You have to work hard to be here, especially in the offseason. I play in the summer too, so it’s a year round thing for me. I try to stay in shape, and injury free, which I have been very lucky with. That’s why I have stayed around for so long, it’s more luck than anything.”
In his seven full seasons with the Bandits dating back to 2005, Hill has appeared in 99 games and recorded 61 points (14 goals, 47 assists) while scooping up 362 loose balls. He has also played in 10 career playoff games for Buffalo, including last week’s win over Boston in which he collected an assist.
When it comes to the summer time, Hill goes back to his home at Six Nations to play Major Series Lacrosse. On his team are familiar faces like Roger Vyse, Tom Montour and Brenden Thenhaus, as well as Rich Kilgour, who coaches the summer squad. The familiarity helps, but Hill attributes the summer league for keeping him in elite shape.
“I played for Six Nations, so we’re sort of connected all year long. This way it’s been an easy transition from summer to the winter. The best thing about Major Series Lacrosse is that your hand-eye coordination with your stick and passing the ball through traffic continues, since you can’t really practice that unless you’re in a game situation. I do believe that helps out the best,” Hill said.
Another way Hill stays in shape is his day job north of the border. Hill is a steel construction worker in the Toronto area, but has traveled throughout North America for steel jobs. He also works with his cousin, friend and Bandits teammate, Montour.
“Tom and I are pretty good friends and stay close working together and playing together in the summer and winter. We’ve been close for many years now. Everything you do, you have to work together to get the job done properly, so lacrosse and work is the same camaraderie,” Hill said.
Steel work and lacrosse would be enough to keep most guys busy, but Hill tries to spend most of his free time with his children. With his travel schedule in the NLL as well as his steel job, Hill is amazed how fast his kids grow, but he’s excited he gets to witness every minute of it.
“I’m a pretty big family guy, and I like having my kids around all the time. I have three children, but they are getting big now. I don’t see them as often as I do in the winter, but they’re very big supporters of me,” Hill said with a smile. “My son plays lacrosse, and my daughter is starting her first year of field lacrosse, so it’s great to see that they’re following in their father’s footsteps.”
Hill made it clear that even with his job and family life, the Bandits are an important part of his life. The joy of being a professional lacrosse player combined with the enthusiasm from Bandit fans is one of best feelings for the veteran, and he looks forward to it every time he steps onto the turf.
“I’d like to finish my career here, because it’s a great place to play. The fans are great, and it’s close to home for me compared to other teams,” the defenseman said. “The atmosphere of the whole building is great, and I appreciate the support the fans give our team.”