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Bandits embracing underdog role after bounce-back playoff win

05/05/2014, 10:15am EDT
By Bandits beat writer Alan Rosenhoch for NLL.com

Buffalo ends eight-game skid when it mattered most, heads to East Finals


The Buffalo Bandits snapped an eight-game losing streak with a first-round playoff win in the East Semifinal. (Photo: Graig Abel)

The monkey is finally off their back. Snapping a franchise-record eight-game losing streak when it counted most, in the East Division semifinal over the Toronto Rock, the Buffalo Bandits’ persistence and hard work finally paid off.

“I saw a big gorilla jump off our back and run out the door,” said Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley with a satisfied smile. “I’m just real happy for our guys. We just kept believing and we did what we needed to do.”

The Bandits offense, which struggled mightily through the majority of the losing streak and received plenty of criticism, came to play in a big way against Toronto. After scoring 14 goals in a losing effort to close the regular season, they found the twine with regularity once again.

Leading the way was Ryan Benesch, who tied a Bandits playoff record scoring seven goals.

Despite his outstanding effort, the always-humble Benesch heaved the credit on his teammates.

“I credit the offense. We moved the ball, we moved our feet, and fortunately for me I got some lanes and got some shots. It could have been any one of us,” said the Kitchener, Ontario native.

His coach agreed, not wanting to put too much credit on any individual contributor on offense.

“We’ve struggled with our offense for the most part of the year and I’m glad we’re clicking at the right time,” Cordingley said. “We were patient with the ball and all five guys were working for that one good shot. It doesn’t matter who has the shot or who gets the goals, it’s the five-man unit that’s working real well together.”

Throughout the bitter losing streak, Cordingley and his players insisted that the locker room was remaining positive and not getting down on themselves.

“You know how social media is today, with the guys texting each other and emailing some real good things that the guys are saying,” the 47-year old Bandits head coach said. “I just felt today was going to be a different day and we found a way to win.”

The players did indeed stay positive and they were rewarded for it in the end.

“Even during [the losing streak], as hard as it is, we didn’t get over-negative, and that’s a hard thing,” said veteran forward Shawn Williams. “We were finding good in what we were doing, and we were doing good things, but when you’re in those ruts it’s adversity, adversity, adversity. That was a big topic before, we faced a lot of adversity, so let’s just clear it and go and that’s all you can do.”

Williams certainly knows about adversity, as he has faced more of it than anyone this season with his young son Tucker battling lymphoma. But the entire Bandits organization and the lacrosse world has rallied around him and his family.

Williams’ ten-year old daughter Dylanie was honored with the singing of the Canadian national anthem before the game in Toronto. Like her father, Dylanie was up for the challenge and blew away the crowd with a goose bumps-inducing rendition.

“I’d like to say she gets it from me, but it’s definitely my wife,” joked Williams.

There have been multiple media reports during the losing streak highlighting John Tavares’ comments that he’s been considering retirement for the first time in his storied career. Whether it happens or not, no one on the Bandits roster wanted to take the chance of having JT’s career end on a nine-game losing streak. And his coach used that extra motivation to the team’s advantage.

“During his pregame speech, Troy [Cordingley] was wearing JT’s jersey,” Benesch told the assembled media after the victory. “He said JT deserves to come back home and play in front of our fans at least one more time. I’m glad that we got him that win.”

Cordingley apparently consulted his captain before donning his jersey before the game, and Tavares gave him his blessing, as long as it did not take the focus off the team and onto himself.

“I said ‘yeah, no problem, as long as people understand that the game is not about me, it’s about the team and it’s about winning,’” the NLL’s all-time scoring leader stated plainly. “It was nice for me and obviously nice for the team to win and take another game back to Buffalo.”

So is this Tavares’ last year? It is still too early to say.

“I never said I wasn’t going to play [next season], but if I’m not going to contribute and not going to do much, it’s hard to have a 45-year-old dragging his butt around,” Tavares quipped. “Next year is a long way away and I just want to try and enjoy this season and get more wins.”

Additional victories will have to come against another archrival, the two-time defending NLL champion Rochester Knighthawks.

In the new NLL playoff format, the teams will play a two-game series, with Game one in Buffalo Saturday May 10 at 7:30pm ET. Game two is the following week in Rochester. If the teams split, they will play a 10-minute mini-game immediately following Game Two in Rochester to decide the winner.

“They’re the defending champs, right? We’re going to enjoy this one tonight and then we’ll hit the video and all the other stuff we have to do to prepare for them," Cordingley said.

These two teams, separated by a mere 60 miles of New York State Thruway, have come to know one another quite well.

“We’ve played them four times already this year, so we know what they’ve got, they know what we’ve got and it’s just a matter of who’s going to bring it on both nights," Benesch said. "It’s going to be a great series, going to be a great battle.”

Given the Bandits’ late-season struggles and Rochester’s domination of the East Division this year (12-1 divisional record), there is little doubt that Rochester is favored to return to the NLL Final for a third-straight year.

But that’s just fine with Tavares.

“At the beginning of the year, no one believed in us, especially after last year’s season,” Tavares said. “We went on that huge slide and I feel that this is a new beginning for us again… I’m a sports fan, I like rooting for the underdog, I like being the underdog.”

And be the underdog he will, perhaps for the last time.

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