April 15, 2009

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Rhys Rocks Rookie Record, Lifts Stealth

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Rhys Duch's 86 points, an NLL record for a rookie, includes the game-winning goal last week against Colorado that ended an epic overtime clash and lifted the San Jose Stealth into the NLL playoffs.
© San Jose Stealth

When his team needed him most, Rhys Duch pounced on a rebound and buried the game-winning goal, punching San Jose's ticket to the National Lacrosse League playoffs.

Duch ended a seven minute, 42-second sudden death overtime stretch, a tense battle in Colorado between weary players with a crowd of 16,189 on its feet focused on every pass and loose ball pickup.

"It was an incredible game," Duch said. "Both teams were exhausted by the end."

Jeff Zywicki's powerful shot deflected off the pads of Colorado goaltender Andrew Leyshon, who went to his knees to stop what proved to be his fifth save in the overtime. The ball rolled out with Duch nearby on the weak side, and as Leyshon tried to stand, Duch ripped it over his left shoulder.

It was the first game-winning goal of Duch's career and it came on the same night he broke Gavin Prout's 2002 NLL rookie scoring record of 82 points.

"It is an honor," Duch said.

The record, which now stands at 86 points (34 goals, 52 assists), seemingly assures Duch of the league's NLL Rookie of the Year award.

Like teammate Colin Doyle, one of his mentors, Duch stresses team play as opposed to getting his shots or thinking about statistics. Media coverage of his pursuit of the record, however, made him aware of it in the days leading up to the game.

"I see it as a team record, because my opportunities improve when opponents have to pay attention to covering Colin Doyle, Jeff Zywicki, Cam Sedgwick and Tom Johnson," Duch said.

When the torch was passed from Prout to Duch, Prout was there as an unfortunate witness, part of a Mammoth team losing its second consecutive overtime game.

Seven years earlier, Prout was with the New York Saints, who missed payroll and mistreated players before folding.

"I'm not one to really pay attention to records, so before the talk about Rhys breaking it this year, I had no idea I had that record," Prout said. "In New York, we were more focused on getting out of there, then preaching on the positives. That may have been one positive, looking back."

Putting Duch's achievement in perspective, Prout added: "To play at this particular time, with all the skilled players, in such a league with so much parity, it is a testament to Rhys and the team around him."

When asked if it launches Duch into an elite class of NLL players, Prout replied, "It is tough to say, for one record-breaking year, if he is elite. It takes numerous years and consistency with points and leadership, things like that, to become a true, I guess, all-star. Right now, he's one of the elite for the year, but you always hear about people who have great rookie seasons and then a sophomore slump, so only time will tell. Time is the true test of an elite lacrosse player."

Duch tied Prout's record on the power play with a submarine shot in the second quarter and broke it 1:18 later, still on a power play, with the same shot -- the best way to get it past Leyshon, who made 50 saves.

"Leyshon is a very good goaltender, so I was looking for an opening," Duch said. "That was my best shot."

The third pick overall in the 2008 NLL draft, Duch honed his game in his hometown, Victoria, British Columbia, the same island city that produced Paul and Gary Gait and Tom Marechek.

Duch, 22, played field lacrosse for four seasons at Stony Brook University in New York, but polished his box game with the Victoria Shamrocks of the Western Lacrosse Association.

Despite missing the first half of the season, due to college lacrosse, Duch finished fourth on the Shamrocks in scoring last summer with 15 goals in nine games and an incredible .326 shooting percentage.

That accuracy has continued in the NLL, where he ranks third in shooting percentage, behind Buffalo legend John Tavares (.353) and New York's Casey Powell (.234) with a .225 mark.

"Rhys has been a go-to player all through his career, through minor lacrosse through Junior Shamrocks and Stony Brook, he's been one of the top snipers," said San Jose coach Chris Hall.

"I think he's been a great shooter since he was a kid and it has continued. Certainly, his shot selection is outstanding. He's a very intelligent person and he does not waste a lot of shots, so I think it is a matter of shot selection, and he's used to being a great shooter."

San Jose has escaped the West Division cellar for a playoff berth. Duch and the Stealth take a three-game winning streak into their season finale at Toronto and onto the playoffs, where Duch will be one to watch.


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