The 2019 NLL season didn’t go as planned for Robert Church. This year, he’s already proving that last season was an anomaly.
Following an underwhelming 67-point campaign in 2019, Church came out of the gates blazing, posting a dominating three goals and five assists to start the 2020 season – his eight points in the season-opener now put him on pace for a league-record 144 points. He contributed to every one of his team’s goals except for the lone tally by Connor Robinson in the fourth quarter. It was the kind of performance that his teammates and coaching staff expected from Church and was a far cry from his start to the year before.
Excuses don’t make up for low numbers, but an injury to Church’s wrist in the first game of the 2019 season against the New England Black Wolves plagued the dynamic right-handed scorer for the entirety of the year. While he still managed a hat trick in that game, which further speaks to Church’s talent and ability, Saskatchewan Rush head coach Derek Keenan noticed the effects of the condition throughout the season.
“It was just one of those years where he got off to a rough start,” Keenan said. “He hurt his hand in his first game and didn’t ever really fully recover, and you could tell. He’s normally a very precise shooter, and he was a little bit off.”
Even when Church claimed to feel healthy, offensive numbers still weren’t coming together. Despite playing 17 games in 2019, Church mustered only 25 goals, a career-worst since his rookie season with 21 goals. He also had totalled his second-fewest shots on goal (138) and had his worst shooting percentage (.128). Last year, he went three games with no goals, an unfortunate feat that he matched in 2017 and only beat in 2014 when he was new to the league. For perspective, Church has had just 14 games with no goals in his career.
Coach Keenan admits that Church was not the only one on the offensive or defensive sides of the ball who had a down year in 2019, but Church knows that his teammates need his scoring prowess on as many nights as possible to help the Rush win.
“My team relies on me to get goals and to get points – that’s what helps us win,” Church said.
Yet, in lacrosse, it takes more than one man and his points to win games. There are other qualities that define a good lacrosse player and a good teammate. According to the Rush’s Ben McIntosh, Church’s former roommate-on-the-road and college teammate at Drexel, Church embodies so many of those traits, and he put them on display last year when he wasn’t putting up points.
“[Church] didn’t put up the points that he usually did, but he helped in other ways,” McIntosh said. “Last year, Church ended up being the pick guy and the seal guy. He’d always be in the corner getting loose balls for us. He’s always been good at that stuff, and he’s an unselfish player, so he’s fine with that.”
But, last year is now in the past. Following a highly unusual early-exit from the NLL Playoffs, Church took a few weeks off before the Western Lacrosse Association season to recover and regroup. It didn’t take long before Church was quickly back to his old, impressive ways. In Church’s summer season-opener with the Burnaby Lakers, he tallied four goals and three assists and went on to finish the season with a league second-best 87 points. A month after the WLA season, Church again showed everything was back to normal when he led Team Canada in assists in the group stage (15).
According to Keenan, the numbers Church posted over the summer is proof that there was nothing to worry about even after his down year.
“It was never really a concern that Robert was going to take a step back in his career,” Keenan said. “Going into this year, I wasn’t concerned because I know he’s going to bounce back.”
Keenan added that Church’s display in Week 1 is the type of performance that the team expects from Church and knows that there will be many more games like this for the rest of the season.
“He took a lot of shots, and I want him taking a lot of shots,” Keenan said. “I think right now he’s really confident in his skill set, his ability to shoot the ball and make plays. He was really good, and hopefully that’s a sign of things to come for the rest of the season.”
The NLL’s new playoff format means only two teams from the West Division could make the playoffs as opposed to a guaranteed four in recent years. That means that the Rush will need to bring their A-game for all 17 remaining games. Players who are known to be scoring threats like Church will have to play to their high-standards and score more frequently to have a chance at the postseason.
“You’ve got to fight to make the playoffs,” McIntosh said. “Every game is incredibly important this year, so we’re going to have to put up goals. We’ve got some good guys in the back-end that can help us. There’s no question about it: we’re going to need to put up 12 goals a game or more to win.”
One player won’t win the Rush an NLL Cup, but the team relies on the talents of its best players to be the best they can be. Church’s point-tallying and goal-scoring gifts are part of their winning formula.