Young Swarm Searching for Consistency
The 2016 National Lacrosse League season has been a rolle rcoaster for the Georgia Swarm.
The Swarm started out with a 16-15 loss in Colorado, they defeated Toronto 12-7 in their debut in their new home in the suburbs of Atlanta, they were smothered 11-6 by New England in their second home game, and they proved they are capable of big things when they won 20-17 in Toronto and 13-9 in Rochester on the same end-of-January weekend.
"Back-to-back wins are hard to get, especially in Toronto and Rochester, because those are tough places to play, so we were really happy to get the two wins," coach Ed Comeau said. "We're pleased with where we're at, but we know it's early in the season, so there is lots of lacrosse to be played."
Comeau was being reserved in his remarks because he knew that, with a team as young as his, there will be valleys as well as peaks as it attempts to find itself. As it turned out, the euphoria that resulted from that Toronto-Rochester breakthrough was short-lived. Blowing a 9-3 lead and losing 12-11 in Calgary last Saturday was a pin as large as a railway spike popping their balloon.
The 3-3 Swarm now regroup for a home game against Buffalo on Sunday afternoon.
First-round draft picks Lyle Thompson, Randy Staats and Jesse King have fit in nicely with returnees Miles Thompson, Shayne Jackson, Johnny Powless and Kiel Matisz. A big reason for the instant compatibility is familiarity: Powless and Staats have been Six Nations teammates in Ontario's summer leagues and Powless, Staats and the Thompsons helped the Iroquois Nationals win silver at the 2015 world indoor championship. They move the ball around as if they've been doing it forever.
"It's a fun group to be around because no one really cares if they get theirs as long as the unit produces," assistant coach Blaine Harrison said. "Everybody is willing to work hard for everybody else. You're seeing a lot of guys do the dirty work on the inside. Guys who are premier-type players like Lyle and Miles Thompson are getting dirty. Randy is getting dirty. Jesse King is spectacular. He makes everybody around him better. So we get guys with talent open and good things happen."
Staats was NLL Rookie of the Month for January. He plays the top of the right side on the attack and leads all rookies with 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists), which puts him first on the Swarm and fifth overall in the league. King, who is a tower of strength on the left side of the attack, is second among all rookies with 22 points (5g, 17a).
"Everyone talks about how young we are and how inexperienced we are, but a lot of us have been in a lot of big games," said King, who was on the Victoria team that won the Mann Cup as Canadian senior champion last September. "We've meshed well together. We all get along and are good friends off the floor. That corresponds with how we play on the floor. I'm having a lot of fun."
Lyle Thompson has fit in nicely despite the pressure of being the No. 1 overall draft pick last September. He's fourth among all NLL rookies with 20 points (6g, 14a). Fellow righty Miles Thompson, in his second season, has 15 points (6g, 9a).
Powless, benefitting from playing with men whose tendencies he fully grasps, is looking a lot like the star many predicted he'd become when he entered the NLL four years ago in his teens. The left-side attacker has 29 points (15g, 14a) so far in what promises to be a career-best year.
"We knew he could be a big-time player in this league and we're hoping he continues at this pace," Comeau said
Jackson, a lefty, also has 29 points (13g, 16a). Matisz has 26 points (5g, 21a). That adds up to four Georgia players among the league's top 13 scorers.
With so much talent up front, Georgia prefers to feed the ball to the forwards and let them attack. Jordan MacIntosh and Chad Tutton can score transition goals but, in general, the coaches are putting less emphasis on transition attacks as do teams such as Calgary and Buffalo. If Powless or Staats or the Thompsons are hot, Georgia will get them the ball.
The Swarm have a youthful defense.
"Compared to other teams, we're probably one of the youngest defenses," assistant coach Sean Ferris said. "We're learning to trust one another. Once we get that figured out, I think we're good."
Thirty-year-old defenders Mitch Belisle and Drew Petkoff are the veterans on defense. David Earl is 28, Alex Crepinsek, Joel White and Reid Acton are 26 and Ethan O'Connor and Jason Noble are 24.
Georgia has two goalies — Brodie MacDonald and Zach Higgins — who want to show they can be No. 1 netminders in the NLL. MacDonald, a backup in Edmonton and Rochester his first four years in the league, has been getting the starts recently. He was the difference in the game in Rochester.
"He's made some adjustments to his style," Comeau said. "He's worked hard on his style."
MacDonald has been crouching less often than in the past. He's standing tall, and that is 6-foot-7 worth of tall. He is commuting to games from Kelowna, British Columbia, which means that for home games he has to fly across the continent and back home again.
MacIntosh is the Swarm's captain.
"He's a natural leader," Ferris said. "Being involved in those two Canadian teams that won the world championships in 2014 and 2015 furthered his development in that area."
The Swarm made a statement with their Toronto-Rochester weekend. They are better than the team that missed the playoffs the last two years playing out of St. Paul, Minn. They have proven they can beat any team in the league. There will be setbacks like the one in Calgary, but there is reason, based on their results so far this season, to believe Georgia will be in the playoffs come May.
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