By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
Many athletes will say that playing in a championship game is an experience like no other — and in order to win the big game, players with championship experience are extremely valuable.
When the Washington Stealth meet the Rochester Knighthawks at 4 p.m. today for the National Lacrosse League’s biggest prize, experienced players can be found all over the floor.
The Knighthawks are the defending NLL champions, and most on their roster played for a title just last season.
The Stealth finished 4-12 a year ago and missed the playoffs, but they aren’t wanting for championship experience. After relocating to Everett from San Jose prior to the 2010 season, the Stealth appeared in two consecutive Champion’s Cups, winning in 2010. Of the 23 players on the Stealth’s active roster, 12 of them played in one or both of the Stealth’s previous title match appearances.
“We have a bunch of the same guys that we had the past few years that were at those championships,” Stealth transition player Bob Snider said. “I think we are pretty experienced. If you look at the two teams that are battling this coming weekend for a championship … both teams have a ton of depth with their veterans. We do bring some experience to the table. I think we need to just come in and understand our opponent as best we can.”
Snider was playing in Philadelphia when the Stealth won the championship in 2010, but joined the team prior to the 2011 season. Since then, Snider has been one of the premier faceoff men in the league.
For all the postseason and championship game experience the Stealth have, there are seven rookies on the active roster, too. They are experiencing the postseason for the first time, but have played a pivotal role in getting Washington back to the title game in 2013.
“The first time you go through (a championship game) there is sort of a million things going on during the week,” Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. “There are a whole bunch of distractions and it is an exciting time. … There are people coming at you from all angles, friends and family, as would be expected, and media. There is all sorts of things going on.”
The 12 championship veterans have been able to use their past experience to help the younger players understand and deal with the pressures in the week leading up to the game.
“The players that have been there before, they know what to expect,” Hall said. “They know what they need to do to make sure that there isn’t a lot of clutter in the way of focusing on the task at hand — and that’s to win.”
The goal for everyone is the same — to walk away as champions — but every player deals differently with the build-up to the game.
For veteran forward Lewis Ratcliff, who was the MVP of the 2010 Champion’s Cup, the title match is just another playoff game.
“There is no more pressure this week than there was last week other than the fact that we are going to win (the championship) if we complete the game,” he said. “Every game is single-elimination, so every week is make it or break it and that is pretty nerve-racking. I don’t think the younger guys are going to be any more jittery or nervous than they were last week in Calgary or against Edmonton.”
Perhaps the most helpful thing the younger players can do in their approach is be to treat today’s championship like they would any other game, Ratcliff added.
Playing in a championship brings the pressure of knowing you have to be at the top of your game, defenseman Mike Grimes said.
“There is nothing easy about playing in a game at this time of year,” he said. “You know you are going to get the best out of the opponent you are playing and you know that if you don’t bring your best then you don’t have a chance.”
Nerves might be higher than normal before the game, but defenseman and team captain Kyle Sorensen said that disappears quickly at the opening faceoff.
“Once we start playing it is just another game,” he said. “Obviously in the back of your mind, you really can’t mess up. I think it is a little bit easier to just sit back and focus and realize that if we put 60 minutes together here, we are going to remember this game the rest of our lives. It’s a pretty special moment.”
Having championship experience is definitely as positive, but Ratcliff points out it isn’t always necessary.
“When we did it in 2010, I think I was the only one that had won one before,” he said. “Chris Hall and I had won together in 2004 (in Calgary). So experience is important, but it’s not make it or break it.”
Grimes said he doesn’t expect the rookies’ lack of big-game experience to be a problem.
“The rookies we’ve had on this team have been great,” he said. “Working with them all season has just been so easy because they have been so accommodating to listening to what us veterans have to say and they are more than happy to take any tips that we have for them. We try to make things easy on them and remind them that it is just another game.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.