Still hurting from the Washing Stealth's 11-10 loss to the Rochester Knighthawks in the National Lacrosse League championship game, Duch said he should have fired high, not low, on the shot that Knighthawks goalkeeper Matt Vinc denied with 18 seconds on the clock. In the frantic final seconds, Duch says he should have tried a behind-the-back shot, maybe that would have been enough to send the game to overtime.
Finally, after all the what ifs, Stealth coach Chris Hall had heard enough out of his star forward. No, Duch didn't pull off the late-game heroics, but this loss was anything but his fault. And that's not just because Duch, a first-team All-Pro, was arguably the biggest single reason the Stealth had gotten this far to begin with, but also because, unbeknownst to anyone outside of the Stealth locker room, he was barely fit to even be on the field Saturday night.
Early in Washington's West Division final win over Calgary last weekend, Duch took a shot to his left quad, giving him a severe bruise that Hall described as a "deep charley horse." On Monday, Duch could barely flex his leg, by Thursday he was still in a lot of pain, and his availability was very much in question right up to game time.
So, you'll have to excuse Hall if he isn't going to let his best player question the decisions he made on those final two shots.
"In all fairness to Rhys, you guys have to know of something," Hall said. "It's not an excuse, it's not anything like that, but for Rhys to be able to play in this game tonight was a monumental effort. On Monday he had 10 percent flexion in his leg. He had a huge, deep charley horse in his left quad and right up to game time we didn't know how mobile he was going to be or if he was even going to be able to play."
Not only did Duch play, he finished the game with three goals and an assist, giving him 14 hat tricks for the season and 10 goals in three games this postseason.
"Rhys did absolutely everything he possibly could to get on the floor tonight," Hall said. "That's not an excuse, but for Rhys to be able to do what he did tonight, knowing the pain he was in and the injury he was nursing to get through tonight, is something that needs to be recognized.
"For him to score three goals under those conditions is phenomenal. ... We were worried that he would not even make the game, but through his own will and fortitude, he managed to play and still get three goals for us. So kudos to Rhys Duch."
Duch, who looked to be fighting back his emotions as his coach praised the gritty effort, reached over to Hall and patted his coach on the back. Duch's emotion, his coach's admiration, it was all part of what made the night so tantalizing, so painful, so easy to look back upon and wonder if one different decision here or there would have been the difference between tears and a title.
The table was set for such an incredible story. A year after starting the season without Hall, who was battling throat cancer, and stumbling to a league-worst 4-12 record, the Stealth came to the Langley Events Center just four quarters away from a fairy-tale turnaround.
And when Washington trailed by four goals early in the second period, and by three at halftime, it was hardly ideal, but the Stealth weren't about to roll over because of that little bit of adversity. Hell, that hardly qualifies as adversity for this team. Adversity is playing games while your coach is being treated for cancer. Adversity is needing your passport to get to a home game.
So, it's hardly surprising that Duch wasn't going to let a sore leg keep him out of a game this big, not when he and his teammates had come this far.
"In any sport, the only team that can say their season was a success was the team that won a championship ultimately. But I don't think you can consider our season a failure," Duch said. "A lot of positives came out of this year, to rebound and do what we did is pretty remarkable. It's pretty rare that you see a team come in last place, then the next year lose the championship game by one. I'm super proud of what our team accomplished. I can't say enough about the group of guys, I really can't."
But just as Duch couldn't miss a game this big, he also couldn't help but wonder if a different decision in those final seconds might have changed his team's fate.
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda, right?" he said. "Vinc was going down on a lot of shots. It's a comfortable shot to go low, it's a lot harder to miss the net. And I don't think I made the right shot. I should have gone far side high to be honest. The last one at the end was just put the ball on the net. Now I think about it, I should have picked it up and gone behind the back, but these are all ... hindsight's 20-20, right."
The same competitive nature that makes an athlete like Duch drag a bum leg through a big game is precisely what prevents him from using that injury as an excuse; from not thinking he should have done something different with one of those final two shots. But even if Duch couldn't appreciate what he did with the loss so fresh in his mind, his coach and teammates knew Saturday night was another special effort from their best player.
"When I saw him on Friday, I thought there was no way he could even remotely play," Hall said. "... But he's a phenomenal competitor obviously. He said, 'I'm good to go and do whatever I can.' For Rhys to do what he did was pretty special."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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