It is Monday morning and the World Championships of lacrosse are set to enter the second week. For the first time since the arrival of Team Canada in England there is the expectation of warm weather and a bit of sunshine. All is quiet in the Team Canada camp this morning as the players have been given the morning off and many have chosen to sleep in or get caught up on the little things like laundry or shopping.
There is a joke going around the Team Canada camp that Canada’s defence is so anonymous that many of its long poles are not even household names in their own households. While this might be a bit of an exaggeration, beyond Brodie Merrill it appears at first glance that most of the Canadian defence consists of rookies and role players. However, this group of unsung heroes is rapidly gelling into a unit that has played admirably so far and will meet its ultimate test in the coming days when the play-offs begin and presumably a rematch with the US occurs.
Indeed while the names on the Canadian defence are not particularly well known in the international lacrosse community they are well known to guys on the team. Taylor Wray, a former Team Canada player and Duke University standout who is an assistant coach with Team Canada points out that the Canadian Lacrosse community is very small and most of the guys on the team have played with each other or against each other since they were in Junior and in some cases even earlier than that. “As a consequence these guys have an amazing degree of trust in each other, they are remarkably unselfish and perhaps because none are perceived as superstars, there are no egos to get in the way”. But as Wray goes on to explain, “While the defence on Team Canada may be perceived as a bunch of ordinary guys, the reality is that this group is extremely talented if one takes the time to look”.
Curtis Manning is a case in point. Manning grew up in Surrey, BC and has played most of his high-end lacrosse with the New Westminster Salmonbellies. Manning never looked to play field lacrosse in the US as he was focused on an academic direction that he felt would be best served by attending Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, BC. Manning started playing for SFU, which plays in the US based MCLA, in his freshman year and played well enough to be voted all conference attackman. The following year, Manning moved to midfield where he was voted all conference at that position. The following year, SFU was playing Brigham Young University and one of their midfielders was causing some real problems for SFU and Manning’s coach asked him to play long-pole for the rest of the game. Manning has been playing long pole ever since and was voted all-conference at that position in both his junior and senior year. Taylor Wray asks “Is there another player in this tournament that has that kind of versatility?” Wray says that besides his versatility, Manning is extremely smart, a point that is emphasised by the fact that Manning will enter the University of British Columbia Medical School to train to become a Doctor this September.
Matt Vinc is another player who Wray believes is under rated but who shouldn’t be. Vinc grew up in St Catharines, Ontario and attended Division I Canisius College in Buffalo, New York and works today as a teacher back in St Catharines. Vinc was recruited as a goalie and began playing long pole in his freshman year. According to Wray, “Vinc only has one speed and that is full”. However, Wray believes Vinc’s other strengths should not be underestimated. The first is his fitness – on a team of very fit players, Vinc has to be one of the fittest players on the team. Second is his mental toughness. While Vinc plays long pole defence in field lacrosse, in box lacrosse he is a goalie for the NLL Orlando Titans and arguably the best indoor goalie in the world. As Wray points out, “ Vinc has played in a lot of high level box games over the course of his career and has developed the mental toughness that goes with being the best in that position”. Wray adds, “Vinc is also very vocal and very physical and this makes him a natural leader on the field”
Mac Allen is another important player on the Canadian defence who field lacrosse players may not be as familiar with as they should. Allen is from Toronto and played his college lacrosse at Bishops University which is part of CUFLA. Allen is considered to be one of the most ferocious and intense defenders in the indoor NLL and plays with the Rochester Knighthawks. Wray says that “the thing that one really begins to appreciate when you work closely with an athlete like Allen is just how intensely competitive the guy is”. As Wray points out, “when Team Canada came to England the players committed to the idea that there would be no wasted practices and no easy games, and Allen has been one of the guys who has kept that commitment in the forefront of our teams thinking”. There are no days off in the world of Mac Allen.
Phil Sanderson might be the most underrated guy on the team, and Wray says that this should be seen as a huge compliment because his team mates and coaches rate him pretty highly. However, according to Wray what’s important from a team perspective is that “Phil will do the stuff that no one else wants to do but that is essential to win, and he is eager to do it”. Wray also notes that Sanderson, while being smaller in physical stature than some of the other defensemen on the team has delivered two of the biggest hits of the tournament so far. Sanderson is also regarded as one of the funnier guys on the team, which Wray believes is important because it helps keep everyone lose and grounded.
Patrick Merrill is another player that Wray speaks of in almost reverential terms. “Patrick Merrill plays a lot bigger than he is because he plays with a tremendous amount of heart”. However, Wray says that Merrill’s strengths go well beyond his attitude as his technical game is very sound. “The guys not flashy, but he’s good at every aspect of the game and he fights for every ground ball as if his life depended on it”.
Another player that doenst seem to have a high profile but should is Jonathan Sullivan. As Wray points out, “everybody thinks this guy just came out of nowhere but in reality he has been playing for the Minnesota Swarm for the past six years without missing a game and is easily the Swarms best defender”. Coach Wray, who also plays in the NLL with the Philadelphia Wings, points out that in the NLL “Sullivan is typically assigned the job of shadowing and shutting down the other team’s top gun. That tells you what kind of player he is’. Wray also notes that Sullivan is a good communicator on the field and very consistent with his overall play.
While many of the Canadian players on the Team Canada defence bask in anonymity, Brodie Merrill is the one defensive player that is universally well known in the lacrosse community. Brodie Merrill hails from Orangeville Ontario, is a graduate of Georgetown University and was voted top defensemen at the last World Championships. Brodie has almost a regal bearing that reminds some people of Jean Beliveau – he is soft spoken, polite, and respectful to players’ coaches and fans alike. But as Wray points out, “one should not let Brodie’s demeanour lead you into thinking that he is anything but an intense competitor and still the best long pole in the world”. Taylor Wray was part of the Team Canada defence back in 2006 that included Jim Moss, Steve Toll and Tommy Phair, all pretty vocal players. As such, Merrill didn’t need to be as vocal back then because there were already some pretty experienced guys who played that role in the dressing room. “In 2010, Brodie Merrill is that guy and when Brodie Merrill speaks everyone listens.”
Before Taylor Wray heads back to the Team Canada camp, he makes a couple of final points regarding the Canadian defence. First, because of the box lacrosse background of our players, all of the short sticks including the attackmen can play aggressive defence. Thus, while guys like Ryan McClelland and Billy Dee Smith are superb defensive middies, all of the rest of the middies including Jordan Hall, Geoff Snider, Shawn Williams, Rhys Duch, Corey Small and Kevin Crowley can all play defence at a very high level. The other strength of the defence point is obviously goaltending. Chris Sanderson is not simply a shot stopper, he literally commands the defence and he makes everyone on defence that plays in front of him so much better. Chris is superb at seeing the whole field and communicating adjustments to the players and this has really helped to bring this defence together quickly.
As Wray heads back to the Team Canada camp, players on the festival team are drifting back to the main tournament headquarters with reports on their teams. Mimico U-16 is the first to check in and they have won again, this time by a goal over a team from Oswego in the US. Team Ontario has tied England 12-12 after having built a 4 goal lead heading into the fourth quarter. Team Alberta has lost to Team USA 19-9, but with the 9 goals the team feels like it is peaking at just the right time. Team Ontario will play Team Alberta in what should prove to be the marquis event of the day tomorrow. Team Canada plays England in the evening.
It is now 30 minutes before game time, as Canada has the early game today against Germany. With Team Iroquois not able to make it to the World Championships, Team Germany has been bumped up to the Blue Division. The weather has continued to improve as the day has unfolded and Team Canada coaches are busy applying sun tan lotion. National anthems are soon dispensed with and it is game on. Germany wins the opening face-off, races down the field and suddenly its 1-0 for Germany.
Canada comes right back with a goal by Zach Greer and then Dan Dawson finishes off a nice feed from Corey Small, but overall the Canadians appear a bit sluggish. A minute later, Germany makes a nice play in transition and suddenly the score is tied 2-2. From here the Canadians start to roll, with John Grant, Shawn Williams, and then three in a row by Dan Dawson. At the end of the first quarter, Canada leads Germany 7 to 2.
The rest of the game follows form with Canada scoring in bunches and the Germans occasionally replying. At half time Canada leads 12 to 3 and they extend that lead to 17-3 at the end of the third quarter. Canada turns it on in the fourth quarter and the game ends 23 to 4. Both teams meet at center field for an informal joint team photo. Everyone is squinting as the sun is shining brightly in England for the first time in a week.