By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
EVERETT — Tonight, the Washington Stealth get their first opportunity to put the past behind them.
After two consecutive appearances in the National Lacrosse League championship game, including a title in 2010, the Stealth finished 2012 with the league’s worst record (4-12). It was a season marred by inconsistent play, injuries — and bigger than all of that — head coach Chris Hall’s battle with throat cancer.
A new season begins at 6:45 tonight when the Stealth face the defending NLL champion Rochester Knighthawks at Comcast Arena.
After a slow start to last season turned into a slow middle and slow finish, Hall said it’s important for his team to start the season on a high note.
“I do think there is a sense of urgency around that, I really do,” he said. “We need to play well and we need to be sharp early and it’s a great measuring stick for us against the defending champions.
“I think it’s very important that we stick our nose in it and say last year was an anomaly. This year, we are back and meaning business.”
While many of the Stealth’s key players remain, the overall roster has gotten younger. Of the 23 players on the active roster, seven are rookies. The biggest change is on the defensive end, where five of the seven rookies are defenders.
“I think (the defense) is going to be a little more aggressive,” Hall said. “I think we are going to run a little bit harder than we did last year and produce more goals out of the back end.
“We thought that our defense wasn’t a great defense. We thought it was an OK defense, not a great defense, and that’s why we pursued the players that we pursued in the draft and free-agency signings.”
The Stealth will need a strong defensive performance to slow down the Knighthawks’ potent offense. Already an explosive unit — as evidenced by last year’s championship run — Rochester added forwards Dan Dawson and Casey Powell to its roster this season.
“Offensively they were already dynamite out there,” Hall said. “They are an explosive team … they have phenomenal players on offense and then they have added Powell and Dawson. Two years ago Powell was the (NLL) MVP and Dan Dawson perennially for the last 10 years has been one of the top five players in the league.”
Hall said one of the ways to slow down the Knighthawks is to limit their possessions.
“The best strategy against a team like that is to try to limit the amount of time that they are able to handle the ball,” he said. “If Bobby Snider and Mitch McMichael can control the face-off circle a little bit, that will give us valuable possessions.”
The Stealth struggled to produce goals for much of last season. Injuries to key offensive players kept the team from developing chemistry and too often the Stealth settled for outside shots. The Stealth made a midseason trade in last year for a proven goal-scorer, Athan Iannucci, but after being a holdout with Edmonton prior to the trade, it took Iannucci several weeks to produce the way the coaching staff expected.
This season, the big-three of Iannucci, Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch have had an entire training camp to get re-acquainted with each other and Hall expects big things from them.
“I think starting the training camp with the big three working with each other and talking with each other and being able to develop some chemistry with each other has been great,” Hall said. “And they have been doing that, which has been fantastic to see.”
After such a disappointing year in 2012, it would be easy for many lacrosse insiders to pick the Stealth to be last again this season.
But Hall doesn’t seem to mind.
“I like it,” he said. “I like to be picked last. You want to pick us last, well, I don’t think so.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.