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Alterna Cup Preview: TOR at VAN

There are two main vibes in Canadian lacrosse, back east and out west, and it’s always something special when they meet up on a Saturday night.

“Who doesn’t love an East versus West battle?” says second-year Toronto Rock forward Zach Manns, who’s actually a westerner that plays for an eastern team.

“Old-school East Coast versus West Coast rap battle,” counters 332-pound Vancouver Warriors goalie Alex Buque, who of course is an easterner on a western team. “Nah just kidding.”

There will be no kidding around Saturday night when Buque’s Warriors host Mann’s Rock in an all-Canadian Alterna Cup matchup under the bright lights at Rogers Arena (10 p.m. ET). The game will be broadcast across Canada on TSN Direct and ESPN+ in the U.S.

“I like to think there is a bit of a rivalry,” says left-hander Manns, 23, from Victoria BC. “Vancouver and Toronto are the two most notable pro sports cities in Canada. There is nothing better than playing on a Saturday night under the brightest lights the sport has to offer. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Both 7-4 Toronto and 5-5 Vancouver are looking to solidify their playoff positions. The teams currently sit in 3rd place in the NLL’s East and West conferences respectively.

But the Warriors have dropped two games in a row, including last week’s 14-12 Alterna Cup loss at Halifax. Vancouver is 2-2 in Alterna play with four games remaining, and still have an outside shot at the Cup.

The Rock, meanwhile, have won five of their last six games overall but along with Saskatchewan (1-3) are eliminated from Alterna Cup contention at 0-2 with two games remaining. However, Toronto could act as spoilers and dash other teams’ Alterna dreams.

Halifax (4-0 with two Alterna games left) currently has the best shot at capturing the Cup. Calgary (1-1 with five Alterna games left) also has a chance with their remaining schedule. The Alterna Cup winner will be decided by the team with the highest winning percentage in Alterna Cup games.

On Saturday, Warriors netminders Buque, of Whitby ON, and Steve “Deep” Fryer, from Brampton ON, will have the task of stopping the Rock’s sharp shooters, which includes right-handers Tom “Captain America” Schreiber and his NLL-leading 3.22 goals per game as well as veteran “Dangerous” Dan Dawson, who is on the verge of two more major milestones this weekend, team captain Challen Rogers, who’s from nearby Coquitlam in suburban Vancouver, and Rob Hellyer, who leads Toronto this season with 35 assists.

“We just treat it like any other game. We watch film, practice,” says Fryer, 31, who played for Toronto in 2014 and ’16. Fryer, a rookie in the East with Philadelphia back in 2012, also tended goal in the West with Colorado from 2018-19, and Rochester in 2020 before joining the Warriors for this season. But he went on to say, “for sure, anytime I play an old team I definitely am a bit more motivated to play my best.”

Fryer and Buque will also have to pay attention to Toronto’s left side, which includes the Rock’s top scorer Dan Craig and his team-leading 49 points, sophomore Manns (11 goals, 10 assists) and fourth-year forward Reid Reinholdt, who grew up and still lives in suburban Vancouver.

“This is somewhat of a home game for me personally,” says Reinholdt, 29, who has 12 goals and 19 assists this season. “It is always extra special to play in Vancouver in front of friends and family.”

The Rock and Warriors have not played each other for more than two calendar years. The last East-West Canadian clash was on Feb. 15, 2020, a 14-7 Toronto home win during the pandemic-shortened season. Reinholdt had three points in that victory.

The last time the Rock visited Vancouver was on April 26, 2019, when the Warriors were called the Stealth. Toronto took that contest as well, 15-9.

And the last time Vancouver beat Toronto was at home on March 31, 2017, close to five years ago. Reinhholdt had five points for the Rock in that 14-11 loss.

“I think I get an extra boost of energy being at home, knowing I have a bit of extra support in the crowd,” says Reinholdt.

But, according to Reinholdt, “all the goalies in our league are quality ballstoppers, and the Vancouver goalies are no different. We need to get to the dangerous areas to score.”

For eastern boy Buque, in his first season with Vancouver, playing against the Rock has always been a bit of a thrill.

“Toronto has always been a team you grew up watching and idolizing players like Watson and Toll, and wanting be a Rock player one day,” says Buque, who has a 10.77 goals-against average and .793 save percentage in nine games for the Warriors this season. Fryer’s numbers in four games this season are 9.42/.793.

“However, to me, this is just another lacrosse game to get ready and prepared for. My mentality, and the team’s, is to be focused against whoever we play, and [with] the league being so tight, every game matters,” says the 29-year-old Buque, who previously played in the West with Colorado for three seasons starting in 2015, when he was named to the All-Rookie Team, then three seasons in the East with Buffalo (2018), New England (2019) and New York (2020).

“The pandemic has been a sort of thorn in the foot when it comes to playing lacrosse, and I am just glad to be back on the floor playing the game I love.”

For western boy Manns, it’s his first-ever game in Vancouver.

“This is my first time playing an NLL game in BC, something that I have had circled on my calendar the day our schedule came out,” says Manns.

“I wouldn’t say [there’s] extra motivation, the team and I are motivated to play hard every night no matter the opponent. However, it would be very nice to perform well in front of my family and friends; the people who have helped get me to where I am today.”

Saturday night is also likely to be special for Manns’ teammate Dawson, who is slated to pass NLL legend John Tavares for the most games played in league history at 307 and needs just two more assists to pass Tavares for the all-time career mark at 935.

“Playing with Dan is a dream come true,” says Manns. “He is the definition of a great player, teammate and person. It’s impossible to find someone with his work ethic and passion for the game. He’s one of the greatest players to step foot on the turf, and the best teammate I’ve ever had.

“It feels like every game he is approaching a new career milestone, but you’ll never hear that from him. He cares about winning and that’s it.”

Expect both teams to come out firing and trying to take that early advantage and don’t be surprised if you see some sprinkled blue Rock jerseys in the crowd of gold and black.