EVERETT — Much of the Washington Stealth’s success this season has been because of a young, physical defense and the play of one of the best goalkeepers in the National Lacrosse League, Tyler Richards.
There is little doubt, however, that the Stealth would not be playing for the West Division championship Saturday in Calgary if not for Rhys Duch.
The veteran forward finished the regular season with a league-best 45 goals and ranked third in the NLL in points with 96. Both are career highs. On an offense that has many weapons — but has been inconsistent throughout the season — Duch has been the one constant.
“It has been fantastic because other players on our offense have struggled and haven’t been able to put up (the) consistent game-in-and-game-out performance that Rhys has,” Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. “So he’s had to carry an awfully big load. I don’t know how many times late in games that we have needed to go to Rhys and other teams know where we are going and yet he still finds a way to rise above things and get it done for us.”
Duch, 26, has scored nearly 30 points more than any other Washington player. Forward Lewis Ratcliff is the closest, finishing the regular season with 67 points (31 goals, 36 assists).
Consistency has been one of Duch’s trademarks since he entered the league in 2009. He has never scored less than 33 goals or collected less than 79 points in any of his five NLL seasons. Both of those totals came last year, when the Stealth finished last in the NLL with a 4-12 record. Statistically, 33 goals and 79 points is still considered superstar level, but Duch expects more of himself.
“The focus for me going into this year was mental preparation,” he said. “I read a couple of books and articles on sports psychology. A big thing for me, I have always had the work-ethic off the field athletically, but this season for me was a big mental thing. Reflecting on last season, not just with myself, but for the team, we really struggled with the mental game, I think that is why we finished last.”
Spending part of the offseason reading and focusing on the mental side of the game is something Duch said he wished he’d started sooner.
“It’s actually really new to me,” he said. “I regret not having looked into it a little earlier in my career. Talking with other upper-level athletes, not just in lacrosse, but in other sports, the guys older than me they say, ‘You have your body when you are young, but as your mind develops, your body deteriorates.’ The best athletes are the ones who can find both at the earliest age.”
It will be a while before Duch’s body breaks down. He is one of the most well-conditioned athletes in the NLL. Hall said that’s one of the reasons Duch has been able to enjoy so much success early in his career.
Duch and the rest of the Stealth made it clear that last season was a thing of the past right away in 2013. Duch had a hat trick in each of the Stealth’s first two games, both victories. At 2-0 the Stealth already were within two wins of their 2012 season total.
Duch continued to be the Stealth’s top offensive weapon all season, helping the team to a 9-7 regular-season record, which tied Washington with Calgary and Edmonton for the top spot in the West Division. The Stealth went into the playoffs with the No. 2 seed after the three-way tiebreaker was applied.
In recent weeks, Duch has been at the top of his game, scoring four goals in each of the past three games. Last Saturday, in the Stealth’s opening-round playoff victory over Edmonton, Duch had a second-half hat trick. Washington trailed 6-0 in the second quarter and 7-2 at halftime before Duch started the furious rally, scoring twice in the first 1 minute, 4 seconds of the third quarter.
“I don’t think I put pressure on myself,” Duch said. “But I kind of told myself, ‘If someone is going to step up, why couldn’t it be you?’ Someone had to.”
It was just the spark the Stealth needed. They scored seven goals in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 10-9 entering the final stanza and eventually pulled out a 12-11 victory.
“You have to realize that you can’t get yourself so far behind in a game that you are buried and you can’t dig out of the hole,” Hall said. “I think Rhys at halftime realized that we were in a giant hole and somebody had to do something pretty fast to get us on track a little bit, or to open the door a little bit and see if we can get our foot inside of it. He was the guy who got us going right off the bat.
“I think he took it upon his shoulders that if anyone was going to do that, if anybody was going to lead us, if anybody was going to try and get us back from the abyss, it was going to have to be him and it was going to have to be then.”
That type of timely production has earned Duch the nickname “Clutch Duch,” although, “Mr. Consistency” works, too. He is the only player on the Stealth roster to score at least one goal in every game this season.
“It’s an important thing because obviously I’m an offensive player and that’s my job,” Duch said. “Having success in that area means I’m doing what my team is asking of me. So for lack of a better term, it makes me happy.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.