By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
EVERETT — The Washington Stealth gave fans plenty of reason to cheer in the team’s first two years in the Pacific Northwest.
After relocating from San Jose, Calif., prior to the 2010 National Lacrosse League season, they posted the league’s best regular-season record and stormed through the playoffs. They capped off the postseason with the franchise’s first Champion’s Cup victory, defeating the Toronto Rock 15-11 in front of a sell-out crowd at Comcast Arena. They returned to the title game in 2011, narrowly losing to the Rock in Toronto 8-7.
The core of those teams remained largely intact as the Stealth entered the 2012 season as one of the favorites to once again reach the championship game.
But the Stealth stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. They finished the season with the league’s worst record (4-12) and were the only franchise in the nine-team league that failed to make the playoffs.
How did the Stealth fall so far so fast? Players, coaches and front-office staff pointed to a number of factors.
Coach Hall’s illness
The downfall began even before the start of the season when the team announced head coach Chris Hall had throat cancer. As expected, Hall is on his way to a full recovery, but he missed nearly half the season while undergoing treatments.
“For me, it started with my own illness,” Hall said. “So that was a huge blow, obviously personally, but I think — not to sound egotistical that I’m such a big part of the organization — but when your head coach gets diagnosed with cancer, I think it’s a huge blow not only personally but a huge blow to the organization. So I think that was an issue.”
Though Hall was involved with training camp, it was on a limited basis and he didn’t have as much contact with the team leading up to the first game as he had in previous seasons.
While Hall was away, the team was led by assistant coach Art Webster, who Hall and Locker both said did the best job he could, but he wasn’t the coach the Stealth were accustomed to.
“You try not to let it affect you, but his (Hall’s) presence is just so huge.” Stealth forward Rhys Duch said. “Obviously that was a factor in the beginning of the year when we kind of got off to a slow start.”
The dispersal draft
When the Boston franchise folded after the 2011 season, the Blazers’ players were made available to the other teams in the league via a dispersal draft. Many of the remaining nine teams got better. The Stealth did not. No one the Stealth picked up in the dispersal draft made the opening-day roster.
“The dispersal draft hurt us,” Hall said. “Those are things that you can’t plan for. How do you plan for dispersal drafts? You don’t. So you plan your future and you are always looking at your competition to see where they are actually going to improve. We know they are going to improve through free agency or the entry draft, but we understand that and we know the players that are going to be available. When you get hit with a dispersal draft, it really changes the parity and the equity in the system dramatically and quickly and unexpectedly.”
In addition to Hall’s absence and the improvement of the other teams in the league, the Stealth started doing things on the floor that were uncharacteristic of them in previous years. The offense settled for shots from the outside without attacking the goal, the transition defense was poor and the entire team took undisciplined penalties game in and game out.
“I think it was a bit of laziness,” Hall said. “Not paying attention to detail and how hard you have to play and how technically sound you have to be and how fundamentally sound you have to be and how alert and aggressive and on top of things and how intelligent you have to be every single minute of every single game.”
Stealth general manager Doug Locker said some of those bad habits might have been formed while Hall was out.
“I use the analogy of looking at the team as kind of a growing child,” Locker said. “So in those formative years, (the) early part of the season (and) training camp when the parent is not there, bad habits kind of develop. And then when the parent comes back, you have to try to break those bad habits. They may be too old to change those habits and I think we suffered from some of that.”
Locker said the blame for that doesn’t belong on Webster.
“I, 100 percent think that Artie did a great job during the time he was there,” Locker said. “But you know, Artie is not C.H. (Chris Hall) and you know Artie did everything humanly possible to make sure that things got off to the right start.”
The injury bug played a role in the Stealth’s collapse. Over the course of the season, it bit several players vital to the team’s success. Defenseman Kyle Sorensen went down, Duch missed time. Goalkeeper Tyler Richards missed three games.
“I don’t think you can downplay the injury situation,” Locker said. “Yeah everybody has them. You try to plan for them and we spend hours trying to talk about if a particular player goes down, who is the backup? You don’t plan for the original player going down and then the backup going down and then you have to compensate for that. I don’t think we have made more … roster transactions in a season than we have this year.”
One of those roster transactions shocked the Stealth fan base. Because of injuries to several key offensive players, the Stealth made the decision in February to trade transition player Paul Rabil, one of the most popular lacrosse players in the world.
Before the season, Rabil had requested a trade to be closer to his home on the East Coast, but the Stealth were unable to accommodate him. In February, they dealt him along with a first-round draft pick to the Edmonton Rush for holdout forward Athan Iannucci. Rabil never reported to Edmonton.
“We had to balance the potential of losing Paul at the end of the year and not getting anything back in return or making a deal, or just rolling the dice and seeing what happens,” Locker said. “As an organization, we just felt like we had to make a move to protect the organization.”
The Stealth tried to move Rabil into a more prominent offensive role this season, but he struggled to adjust.
“We worked hard, very hard over the course of those three years to accommodate Paul in what he wanted to truly be, he wanted to be a pure ‘O’ guy,” Hall said. “It takes a while to be a pure offensive guy in this league when you are a field player trying to convert to the indoor game. It’s difficult.
“We thought that going into that third year it was time to give him that opportunity. But to be perfectly honest, if you look at the statistics and we watch him offensively try to blend in and teach him the game and we worked hard at teaching him the game and trying to understand it, statistically and chemistry-wise and performance-wise, it wasn’t there.”
The trade did work out for the Stealth. After a slow start, Iannucci was one of Washington’s most productive offensive players down the stretch, finishing the season with 21 goals and 24 assists in just 11 games.
The downside of the trade is that first-round draft pick Washington shipped to Edmonton. It became the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 NLL entry draft.
“We would have made that trade 10 times out of 10 in March, because the last thing on our minds was that we were going to finish last,” Locker said. “We made that deal with the idea in mind that we were going to go deep into the postseason and that this was going to be a piece that was going to help us go deep. The last thing in my mind was that we were going to be trading the first pick in the draft, which meant that we were going to be the worst team in the NLL at the end of the year.”
Too much success?
It’s also possible that the success of 2010 and 2011 contributed to the team’s demise in 2012.
“Did we get too comfortable after being in two championship finals? Maybe,” Hall said. “We lost a bit of sense of how tough it is to win in this league. I don’t think anyone of them ever thought that we would be in the position that we are in.
“Even if we play lousy there is no way we are going to not make the playoffs. There is no way we are going to be last. Well, you know what? There is not much difference between the top and the bottom.”
Sorensen said a feeling of entitlement did exist on the team.
“Not having the right mindset,” he said. “Not having the focus and the right mindset of a professional athlete. We just assumed that we were going to make it.”
All of which added up to the most frustrating season Hall has ever had as a head coach. He summed it up before the team faced Buffalo in the final game of the season.
“I havent coached a game that supposedly means nothing in this league since 2002,” he said. “To me, it’s devastating. I’m not used to losing. I don’t like losing. I find every way possible to win.”
Locker said he still believes this team can go deep into the postseason — if healthy.
“We’ve got a room full of guys that can win a championship,” he said. “For whatever reasons, it didn’t happen. It was probably not one of those factors individually, it was probably all of those factors put together in the perfect negative storm. But I’m not going to let them feel sorry for themselves. I’m not going to let us feel sorry for ourselves. We are going to be back. We are going to turn the thing around and we are going to be back where we think we should be.”
Locker said the core of the team is likely to be back next season, but acknowledged some changes will be made.
“All we have really done at this point is start to put together our draft list and start to put together our free-agent list,” he said. “We will start the process where we meet with every single player and talk about their season and have a chance to reflect on what’s gone on.
“Then we are going to take a look at every position. I don’t think it’s a blow-up situation. You know, we aren’t going to go nuclear and throw the baby out with the bath water, I think we have a good team. Every team can get better and that’s what you do in the offseason.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.