By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
EVERETT — The wait is almost over for the National Lacrosse League’s Washington Stealth. After an eight-month offseason, the Stealth play host to Calgary at 7:15 p.m. Saturday in their 2012 season opener.
The Stealth are looking for a third consecutive appearance in the NLL’s Champion’s Cup and are working to reclaim the crown they earned in 2010.
It won’t be easy — and two reasons immediately jump out. The first is that the league has more depth this season since the Boston Blazers won’t be competing, dropping the number of teams from 10 to nine. The second is that the Stealth’s leader on the sideline, head coach Chris Hall, is out for an indefinite period as he undergoes treatment for throat cancer.
Assistant coach Art Webster, who has been with the Stealth for seven seasons, will guide the team in Hall’s absence.
“I think there is a total comfort level there with Artie on the bench,” Stealth general manager Doug Locker said. “And certainly from an organizational standpoint, it’s the same. He is our longest tenured assistant. He’s tied to CH (Chris Hall) in a number of ways. It’s very convenient for us because they (live) in the same city (Victoria, B.C.) so they communicate quite a bit. I think everybody has the utmost respect for Art Webster.”
Hall remains involved with the day-to-day coaching decisions, but has said he won’t return to the sideline until he is fully ready. “The good news is that in today’s technological world, I will be closely connected,” Hall said.
The roster Washington brings into the 2012 campaign features most of the same weapons that helped the Stealth reach the NLL title game the past two seasons. The “dynamic duo” of Lewis Ratcliff and Rhys Duch are back to lead the Stealth’s potent offensive attack. Paul Rabil, widely regarded as the best field lacrosse player in the world, returns for his fourth season with the Stealth, and goalkeeper Tyler Richards, who has proven to be one of the NLL’s most clutch goaltenders come playoff time, returns as well.
Even though the Stealth return all heir major weapons, another trip to the NLL championship game is no sure thing, Locker said.
“If we didn’t win (the NLL title), it wouldn’t be a success no matter where we finish,” Locker said. “But that having been said, times are different now. While we think we are better, it’s a nine-team league and two years ago it was 10 or 11 teams.
“It’s going to be a tough year. Honestly, we could be 8-8 (in the regular season) and we could feel like that was a fantastic year before the playoffs because I think it is just going to be a bloodbath every single game.”
The core of the team remains unchanged, but fans will see a few new faces Saturday night. Most notable on the offensive end will be rookie Brett Hickey, who earned a spot on the roster as the team’s third right-handed offensive forward, and Dean Hill, who won a spot as the team’s fourth left-handed forward.
But if the Stealth are going to win another championship, it most likely will be because their defense returned to its 2010 form.
The addition of transition player Kyle Ross, acquired in an offseason trade with the Toronto Rock, and the return of healthy defenseman Kyle Sorensen gives the coaching staff and Locker hope that the defense will be one of the stronger units in the league. “I don’t think anyone in the league has a deeper defense than we do,” Locker said.
Sorensen missed most of last season with a torn ACL but said he is 100 percent. His value to the team was evident last spring as the Stealth went on postseason run all the way to the championship game after Sorensen returned.
“It’s like having another coach out there,” Locker said. “The guys have so much respect for him. He’s one of those guys that when he says something, everyone stops and listens. He’s very smart — picks his moments well. He doesn’t necessarily talk a lot, but when he talks, guys will listen.”
With the offense loaded and the defense back at full strength, does Washington have a weakness?
“You wonder if we have enough depth at some areas,” Locker said. “A lot of the depth we think we have is unproven depth. I wouldn’t call them weaknesses, they are unknowns.”
While Saturday’s game with the Roughnecks is the first of the season for the Stealth, it will be the second for Calgary, which opened its season Sunday with a 12-9 victory over defending NLL champion Toronto.
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald, read his live blogs at www.heraldnet.com/blog34, follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.