Paul Rabil, Eric Martin and Ben Hunt entered the National Lacrosse League with the same amount of indoor experience as the majority of other American-born players.
Unlike their Canadian counterparts, who grow up playing indoor lacrosse, the Americans tend to hone their skills playing field lacrosse. As a result, the learning curve when they first join a professional indoor team can be steep.
The indoor game is faster, more physical and played in much tighter quarters than its outdoor cousin, meaning most American-born players have to adjust both mentally and physically.
The Washington Stealth currently have six American-born players on their roster, one above the league average. Philadelphia has the most (13), while the three Canadian franchises (Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton) have just one American between them — Edmonton’s Ryan Powell.
In addition to Rabil, Martin and Hunt, the Stealth’s U.S. contingent includes face-off specialist Jamison Koesterer, transition player Kyle Hartzell and defender Brett Manney.
The adjustments and experiences in the NLL are different for each American, but one thing they have in common: They show up at training camp as rookies looking to learn new ways to play an old sport.
Ben Hunt, a third-round pick in the 2009 NLL entry draft, came to Washington as an offensive-minded, ambidextrous midfielder from the University of North Carolina. With the Stealth, he’s been asked to play primarily a defensive transition role.
The 22-year-old said he’s slowly learning to be more aggressive.
“It’s a ton different,” he said. “In college and the MLL (Major League Lacrosse), I would get in on my shift on offense, get my shot off and run off (the field).”
Now he stays on the floor for longer stretches.
“It’s something that I’m picking up and getting,” he said. “I’m learning new things every game.”
Hunt, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, made his first appearance of the season in a Jan. 22 home win over Buffalo. He scooped up two loose balls, shot 0-for-1 and was called for a two-minute minor penalty. His next appearance was Saturday’s road win at Colorado, where he grabbed a season-high seven loose balls to help make up for the absence of Rabil, a two-time NLL transition player of the week this season.
“I feel like I’m improving every game,” said Hunt, who recently moved to Mercer Island. “I felt more confident out there, I’m starting to feel more comfortable with every game.”
On a team loaded with talent at the transition position, Hunt is being brought along slowly. The Arnold, Md., native said he’s adjusting to the faster pace and physical play of the indoor game.
“We have a ton of talent of this team, every guy on the roster has been able to contribute,” Hunt said. “Whenever I get called up, I’m ready to go.”
As the season progresses, Hunt said he hopes to become more aggressive on the floor while looking for opportunities to showcase his ability to shoot with either hand. He also said playing in front of 10,000-plus fans on the road is a thrill.
“The indoor game is really exciting,” Hunt said. “It (playing in front of 15,242 fans in Denver) was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
A four-time All-America selection at Johns Hopkins University, Paul Rabil has earned a reputation as one of the most impressive field lacrosse players in recent history.
But in his first game with the San Jose Stealth in 2009, Rabil had just two assists in a 12-10 loss to Calgary. He finished the 2009 season with 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists) in 16 games.
“Last year at this point, my role was really undefined,” said Rabil, a Gaithersburg, Md., native. “We had a tough time figuring out my role as I was trying to figure out the game.”
The 6-3, 225-pound Rabil already has 13 assists this season, even with missing last Saturday’s 12-11 win at Colorado because of U.S. national team duties. He said his improvement fan be traced to two factors. One, his role as a distributor is more clear. And, two, he’s in better shape than he was a year ago. Rabil spent the offseason working with Jay Dyer, his old strength and conditioning coach in college, to improve his stamina.
“That’s played a huge role (in the improvement),” Rabil said. “As well as knowing when to expend and when to conserve your energy on the floor.”
A student of the game, Rabil said learning the spacing and timing of the indoor game were two of his biggest challenges as a rookie. But through careful examination of veteran players — and trying to emulate their play — he’s making quite an impact in his second season.
“I think that’s one of the most important parts of growing as a player and athlete,” Rabil said of picking up tendencies from players such as Buffalo’s Mark Steenhuis and Boston’s Dan Dawson. “I’m constantly watching the best players in the game. It’s something I’ve always done and continue to do as I grow as a player.”
It took sixth-year defender Eric Martin, a second-round pick in 2004, about three seasons to really feel comfortable playing indoor lacrosse.
After a decorated collegiate career at Salisbury University in Maryland where Martin — commonly referred to as “Meat” by his Stealth teammates — earned NCAA Division III National Player of the Year honors as a senior, the 6-2 defensive stalwart had to adjust to using a short stick and defending pick and rolls in the NLL.
“I think a lot of guys struggle with the pick and roll,” Martin said of his fellow Americans. “A pick and roll-type play is really different to get, it takes a lot of reps, a lot of practice.”
Martin developed into a top defender in the league because of his hustle and tenacity. He grabbed a career-high 151 loose balls in 2008, 100 last season and is currently sixth in the league with 39 loose balls this season.
Martin’s leadership also has helped guide the NLL’s best penalty-kill unit, which has allowed just three goals in five games.
“You understand the game better,” Martin said of the experience that comes with time. “You are more familiar with the teams and player tendencies.”
Martin also benefited from a summer playing indoor lacrosse for the Victoria Shamrocks of the Canadian Western Lacrosse Association in 2006.
Like Rabil, Martin said a key to his development was learning from the players around him.
And, as evidenced by the starting spot he earned as a 2008 NLL all-star, Martin has put those lessons to good use.