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Rush visit Mammoth to start season

12/22/2013, 12:15pm EST
By Mammoth beat writer Nick Salen & Rush beat writer Scott Zerr for NLL.com

West Division play gets underway with Edmonton in Colorado on Saturday

Colorado Mammoth host Edmonton Rush at 9pm ET on Saturday, Dec. 28 to open the 2014 NLL season. (Photo: Bartley Young)

The Colorado Mammoth take on the visiting Edmonton Rush at Pepsi Center on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET to open the 2014 National Lacrosse League regular season. Watch the game live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network by clicking here. The game will also air live on Altitude2 (DIRECTV channel 682 and Dish Network channel 410).

An active offseason has the Mammoth looking to vastly improve from their 2013 campaign.

The Mammoth finished last year with a disappointing 7-9 record, topped off by a premature exit from the playoffs. Nearly nine months later, the team looks refit, refueled and remolded; an important bar to set at the beginning of the season according to Mammoth head coach Bob Hamley.

“It’s the time of year where everyone has a chance, and excited about getting started,” said Hamley. “Training camp was a little fewer in numbers this year, we went purposefully with fewer numbers, but a lot tougher decisions this year.”

Colorado made a bold move in the offseason by acquiring Drew Westervelt from the Philadelphia Wings. Westervelt, who as amassed 302 career points (164g,138a) in six NLL seasons, is expected to contribute greatly to an already talented depth on offense.

“He’s been great in camp,” Hamley added. “We’re very happy with Drew and obviously Sean Pollock and Jordan McBride, as well as Jackson Decker and Mat MacLeod can play up there as we have seen before.”

But every offseason comes with roster casualties, a few of which were surprising out of the Colorado camp, in an active month of December.  Beginning in the early stages of training camp, Mammoth forward Casey Powell was placed on the Holdout List for personal reasons, and just two days later released long time player and captain Gavin Prout.  With two big names on offense now absent from the lineup, it means more opportunity and flexibility for other offensive players, a challenge Hamley is unphased by.

“If you look at the year before we were maybe above average there, but we took a little step back,” Hamley commented. “I’m not concerned, Pollock maybe had a little bit of an off year last year, but he came in camp, loaded for bare and McBride we saw improvement in Jordan last year and he’s come to camp really fit and ready to go…The games have become more faster and guys like Jackson Decker and some of our transition guys Cam Holding are going to create opportunities for our offense as well.”

Colorado also bolstered its defense in the preseason by signing Dan Ball.  In net, it will be Tye Belanger, who posted a 10.77 GAA last season, and is expected to split time with Dillon Ward, the Mammoth’s third overall pick in September’s Entry Draft.

Highlighting the Colorado offense is John Grant Jr., who was named captain earlier this week for the first time in his career.  Coming off a 91 point season (43g, 48a), Grant is as eager as ever to begin the season on a high note after a successful preseason.

“That was the organized, performed training camp I’ve ever been a part of…I think we’re chopping at the bit to start coming up with a season that this organization deserves, we’re fired up to get going.”

Meanwhile, the Rush are also ready to get going this year with plenty of young talent. Rookies made a huge splash for Edmonton during the 2013 NLL season with Mark Matthews leading the way.

Not only did Matthews win the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, but the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Entry Draft led the Rush and finished fifth in the league with 38 goals during his first pro campaign. Matthews, though, wasn’t the only first-year pro to make an impact in the Rush lineup last season. His former junior teammate, Curtis Knight, was amongst the NLL’s top freshman, ending his season with 46 points and becoming a major focus on the Rush power play.

Year 2 for the duo is coming up quick and both are expected to bring more to the Rush roster in 2014.

Matthews spent much the summer working on his overall conditioning back in Denver – the city where the Rush will make their ’14 season debut in taking on the Colorado Mammoth.

“It allows him to add an extra dimension to his game,” said Rush GM/Head Coach Derek Keenan. “He’s a big body and the other teams go hard physically against him. Being in better shape is going to allow him to escape some of that and be more of a threat with the ball.”

Matthews’ production last season was about all the Rush could have expected out of him. A more finely tuned athlete should results in Matthews expanding on the 69 points he totaled.

The Rush are also hopeful that the sophomore jinx steers clear of Knight, who was taken eighth overall in 2012. The Whitby, Ont., native came out of the blocks on fire, snapping in a hat trick and earning Rookie of the Week honors in his very first pro game.

Knight would go on to rack up 19 goals and 27 assists, and like Matthews, more is expected of him when the Rush hit the floor starting on Saturday night in Denver. Knight, too, spent much his summer in the gym trying to bulk up his frame to handle the rough sledding in the slot.

“He got a lot stronger and now he needs to bring that strength into the game and still use his quickness,” noted Keenan. “He had a solid rookie season and he’s very dedicated to the game. I’m confident he’s going to continue to get better.

“I’ve coached him since he was 17 and he has gotten better every year.”

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