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National treasure: Lacrosse squad revs up for regular season

May 29th, 2010 · No Comments


Brodie Merill, 2009 MLL Defensive Player of the Year. Courtesy: Tracy Johnson

By Perry King

When a sports team wins a league title in their inaugural season, they’re going to get some attention.

But somehow, the Toronto Nationals, an expansion franchise of Major League Lacrosse (MLL)—the National Lacrosse League’s (NLL) outdoor lacrosse counterpart—did the deed in the quietest way possible.

“We came together at the right time. We had been inconsistent throughout the regular season, but really, it came down to that last weekend and we felt like we gelled,” said Brodie Merrill, a Nationals defenseman. “We were able to keep a large corps of players that played together in Rochester the year before and won the championship. That helped, but Coach Huntley and his staff came in and established a new philosophy where the players bought into it.”

Successes aside, there was little appetite for the Nationals because they were relatively unknown last season. “It’s funny, living in Toronto, I think we’re the best kept secret: the best players in the world playing for the city and we were successful—especially in the landscape of Toronto sports. It’s really something the city can get behind,” said Merrill.

“The everyday, working class person can really identify with the game of lacrosse and lacrosse players. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to spend your entertainment dollars, and the fans are really recognizing that.”

The Toronto Nationals evolved out of the Rochester Rattlers, an MLL charter member, which decided to temporarily dissolve to better foster competitive lacrosse for the league. The team itself can be reactivated, but in the meantime, the Rattlers’ core members had to deal with Coach Dave Huntley’s system, a new stadium and city.

The transition was a rough one. “We had some stretches of good games and a few sub par games last season. I think when we were successful last season, we were playing as a team, and really moving the ball around offensively,” wrote Delby Powless of the team’s attack unit in an email.

Eventually, the team developed an identity on the field—an up-tempo, offensive identity. “Our defence and midfielders do a great job of pushing the ball up the field creating odd-man opportunities, which as a fan is much better to watch,” said Powless.

“I think our transition from defence to offence really caused problems for some of the teams who like to slow the game down.”

That identity certainly showed up on the stat sheet. The Nationals scored 184 goals in 12 games in 2009—about 15 goals a game.

2010 will be a challenging season for the well-tested squad. Defending a title is a lot to ask for, but for the first time, the Nationals will also be playing their home games at Lamport Stadium (1151 King St. W.), after a strong season at BMO Field.

BMO Field, after implementing natural grass on their pitch, became Canada’s largest soccer-specific facility last winter, forcing teams like the Nationals to make new plans.

Dan Dawson, an offensive stalwart of the NLL for nine years, says transitioning from the box-style lacrosse of the NLL to the outdoors of the MLL has been a challenge. “Field lacrosse has a lot more athleticism than the indoor game, a lot more stick skills. So there is a bit of transition, but at the end of the day, it’s still lacrosse and I’m still learning and trying to become a better player at this level,” said the offensive guru, who has averaged 32 goals in eight pro seasons in the NLL.

Dawson currently works as a fire fighter, but wants to play pro lacrosse for another five to 10 years. “I’m forever in debt to the sport of lacrosse, I have so many fond memories. I have friendships forever because of the game. I represented my country three times, won a world championship in Canada. You know, I get to play in my hometown in Toronto. There is so much I’m grateful for because of the sport,” he said.

As for this season, the players are ready to go. All the players said they would defend the title. “One of the toughest things in sports is to really have a good season after a championship, so we’re trying to avoid complacency, that kind of ‘championship hangover’ so to speak,” said Merrill.

“You try to avoid all the distractions and just focus on prep and the finer details of the game.”

Defence Talks

Brodie Merrill, the heart of the Nationals defence, is no novice when it comes to his job. In fact, since he began his career, he has been the MLL’s premier defenseman.

  • Born in Orangeville, Merrill’s credentials include a rookie of the year award in 2006, and four consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, most recently last season.
  • In the NLL, Merrill was named 2006 Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. At Georgetown University, Merrill was a standout, winning the Schmeisser award for outstanding defence in his senior year.
  • There’s more. At the inaugural World Lacrosse Championships in 2006, he was named Best Defender and earned All-World honours.
  • He is currently the Dean of Students and head men’s lacrosse coach at The Hill Academy in Vaughan, Ontario.

For more information about the Toronto Nationals, visit http://nationalslacrosse.com/.

Tags: Sports · General