By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
Three weeks into the 2013 season, the National Lacrosse League has an unlikely scoring leader.
Washington forward Cliff Smith.
The same Cliff Smith who’s never scored more than 20 points in any of his previous three seasons in the NLL.
Smith, a 27-year-old left-hander, got off to a blistering start, collecting 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in his first two games. Even though he’s cooled down — he managed just one assist in Sunday’s loss to Edmonton — he leads the NLL with 16 points.
The always humble Smith attributes his lofty standing to timing rather than a sudden emergence of superstar talent.
“Honestly, it just kind of happened that two of the best games I have ever had were back-to-back,” he said.
While Smith down plays his early season success, Stealth head coach Chris Hall said the gaudy numbers are no surprise.
“And I’m adamant about that …,” Hall said. “I’ve always thought that since I watched him play in junior (lacrosse) that he had these capabilities. I’ve been totally confident of that since the beginning, and that’s why we traded for him.”
Washington acquired Smith from the Colorado Mammoth at the trade deadline in 2011. Smith spent his first 11/2 seasons in Colorado, but never seemed to find his niche. Once in Washington, his struggles continued — in part because he changed postions.
“My first year (with Washington) I got traded at the deadline so I only played three regular-season games and then playoffs,” he said. “In Colorado, I was a transition player and I came here and I was playing offense.”
His 2012 season, which started slowly, was cut short by injury.
“I played the first couple of games, but I just wasn’t playing well,” Smith said. “And then it was the sixth game or seventh game that I break my scapula.”
Having such a disappointing 2012 campaign actually helped Smith relax coming into 2013.
“I kind of realized after last year that I can’t play any worse than this, so just forget it,” he said. “I just went out and played.”
Hall and Smith agree that having a more defined role this season has helped Smith settle into the offense. Smith had been asked to do a little bit of everything in his time with the Stealth, including playing on the faceoff teams, defense, short-man, power play and transition. Hall put an end to that this season.
“We talked in the offseason and I informed Cliff that I wanted him to be a pure offensive guy this year,” Hall said. “With the retirement of (forward) Cam Sedgwick, I said, ‘I see this being a pure O-guy for us, at least being the No. 2 threat on the left-hand side, if not the top threat. That’s where we have him slotted in on this team for the future.”
Smith said it was nice to know what was expected of him.
“I thought about it a lot in the offseason because I wanted to gear all of the things that I was doing in the weight room and things like that toward what my role was going to be,” Smith said. “So I reached out to Chris in the summer because I wanted to make sure that I was preparing myself properly and not putting myself in the same position that I was last year and we talked about it and he said, ‘You are playing strictly O.’ It helped a lot because from the minute he told me that I could go into everything knowing that that first day I’m playing strictly offense.”
The Stealth went into the 2013 season with an already established “Big Three” on offense with Rhys Duch, Lewis Ratcliff and Athan Iannucci. Smith’s performance in the first two games had some wondering if the “Big Three” had become the “Big Four.”
“I think it is a reality and we have four huge threats and the nice thing about that is we’ve got two lefts and two rights,” Hall said. “Smith and Ratcliff on one side, and Duch and Iannucci on the other side. Any one of which can explode to (get) six, seven, eight, nine points a night. That’s a tough thing to defend.”
Always humble, Smith doesn’t consider himself a card-carrying member of the Big Four.
“Not at all,” he said. “I could make a bigger case for Dean (Hill). We will push for Dean Hill to make the Big Four, how about that? If we want to make it the ‘Big Six or Seven’ then I will make a push to include myself.”
The question for Smith, of course, is can he maintain his pace — or anything close to it — over a 16-game regular season? After all, this is a player who came into the season with just 44 career points.
Hall, for one, thinks he can.
“Does he have the capabilities to be that kind of guy? Yes,” the coach said. “He is a very humble guy and he is very team-oriented and you know what? His philosophy is whatever is best for the team, he will do.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.