Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” – Arthur Ashe
Since swooping into the NLL as an expansion franchise ahead of the 2019-20 NLL season, the Rochester Knighthawks have had a similar mindset as the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe. One day, the Knighthawks hope to have the same success as Ashe had during his career, particularly in New York.
Patience has been a virtue for this young organization. Finally, after all the blood, sweat, and tears given to improving each game, shift, and play, the Knighthawks are starting to reap the rewards of their tireless and determined efforts.
Before this season, the Knighthawks had won a total of six games over two campaigns (this included the COVID-19 shortened year when the Knighthawks only played 12 of 18 games). Now, in their third season, the Knighthawks have already tied their franchise record for most wins in a season (four) in their first four games.
For seasoned veteran and multiple NLL championship winner Curtis Knight, the sweet taste of victory tastes even better knowing how much they have endured and how many games have been lost (24) over the last three seasons.
“It feels good; it’s gratifying,” Knight said. “When you’re putting in a lot of work, you’re playing hard, you’re practicing every week, you watch all the film – you’re doing all the things, but you’re not getting rewarded – it can be kind of frustrating. So, finally getting some wins – obviously, those are what matter – it feels rewarding.”
It should feel rewarding. Not only are the Knighthawks one of two undefeated teams left in the NLL this season, but winning all of these games now takes a little bit of pressure off for the remaining 14 games on the schedule. It’s a feeling that many guys on the team haven’t had the privilege of experiencing at the NLL level, but they aren’t letting it get to their heads.
If you look at the next six games on their schedule, the Knighthawks play the New York Riptide (twice), the Halifax Thunderbirds (twice), and the Buffalo Bandits (twice). And, if you want to add a cherry on top, they’ll head to Hamilton, Ontario, to face the Toronto Rock after that gauntlet of games. Knight and his teammates are excited to have strung together as many wins as they have, but they understand there is a long season ahead.
“It’s going to be a very tough road,” Knight said. “Nobody expects us to win every game. I think the important thing is not necessarily winning or losing; it’s more about getting better each game and getting better each practice. I think that if we really focus on that, then we’ll just get better. And, by the end of the year, we’re the best we can possibly be. That’s what is most important going into the playoffs; if we make it – that’s where we want to be.”
If there’s one aspect of their play that will get them through that rigorous stretch of games, it’s how much effort they put into each battle. Head Coach Mike Hasen noted that aside from a handful of games over the last couple of seasons, his team’s ability to never quit on the floor has been one of the shining attributes.
“We hang our hat on our compete-level,” Hasen said. “Minus a couple of games, including one last year in New York where we were really flat and really bad, our compete-level has always been there for 60 minutes, and that’s what we’re more focused on.”
This season, we’ve already seen how hard this team is willing to work to get a win, even when they’re down in ball games. This may not have happened in years past, but this season, they have shown they can make mid-game adjustments to win games.
In their third game this season, the Knighthawks were losing 8-5 at halftime to the Albany FireWolves. After a quick regroup at halftime, the Knighthawks started the second half on a five-goal run to take a 10-8 lead. While the FireWolves did reheat themselves – they retook the lead in the fourth quarter – the Knighthawks tallied three of the last four goals to give them the victory.
“It proved to ourselves that we can get into a halftime being down, simplify our game, make some adjustments,” Hasen said. “We were tied at 8-8, and then we went ahead shortly thereafter. I think there’s a belief in each other that the guys are starting to grasp.”
Knight backed that claim by expressing how much confidence each player has in the other’s abilities. Individually, the guys know how talented and capable each other is. Still, there is a more profound understanding that each unit is strong because of their ability to work together tremendously, whether on offense or defense.
“Any one of our groups can take over a game, and it can lead us to wins,” Knight said. “The offense can put up a bunch of goals, and we can get a win. I think [Rylan] Hartley or even [Riley] Hutchcraft can steal us a win. And the defense can get us a win. When your team has that – maybe one unit is lacking in a game and another can step up – I think that’s quite powerful.”
It’s impressive how well this team works together as a complete package. Yes, players like Knight, Holden Cattoni, Paul Dawson, Ryland Rees, and others have been with this team since their first season, but many of the guys have not been.
Guys like Dan Coates, Ryan Smith, Thomas Hoggarth, Brad Gilles, and of course, Connor Fields are all newer members of this team. Yet, how they fit in so seamlessly speaks volumes about the type of guys that GM Dan Carey wanted to bring to this club. Two guys that have been with the Knighthawks from the beginning have also been vital staples to the team’s identity.
“Paul Dawson is one, and he’s our Captain, and Curtis Knight is another,” Carey said. “Both of those guys were pending UFAs [Unrestricted Free Agents] going into this past summer. Those were two guys that expressed interest in staying here, and I think that says a lot about the culture we’re building and the type of guys we have in our locker room.”
When you have quality veteran players like Dawson and Knight wanting to remain part of your organization because they are so happy with how the management and coaching staff are running the team, it makes it easier to recruit younger, new guys who can add talent and depth to the squad.
For example, one of the NLL’s top scorers this year, Fields, signed with the Knighthawks over the offseason. Through Week 6, Fields’’ 25 points are the 7th-most in the league, and he missed a game while he was on his honeymoon – before Week 6, he was the points leader in the NLL.
“Connor is someone that we had actually been targeting for quite some time,” Carey said. “We probably had a countless number of conversations with [Seals Head Coach] Patrick Merrill when Connor was with San Diego. The timing and the fit – to make a trade, both sides must be comfortable with what they’re receiving and giving – it just didn’t seem to work at the time.”
Well not only did GM Carey’s moves to get Fields to the Knighthawks finally work, but each and every move made since the team’s inception seems to be paying dividends.
Think about it this way, there has never been a team in NLL history that finished a season 10-8 (or better) and didn’t make the NLL Playoffs. That means even if the Knighthawks went 6-8 over the last 14 games, there would be little reason to think they wouldn’t make the playoffs.
Obviously, that is not the goal. This team would love to win as many games as possible, particularly if they stick to their core principles and continue improving. But if things don’t go their way, there is still very high probability this team will be making its 1st NLL Postseason appearance this year.
While it’s often said that good things come to those who wait, the Knighthawks have persistently and quietly been working towards being their best selves, which, believe it or not, they still aren’t. Yet, there is no doubt that everything they have done on their journey has led this team to great success.
The Knighthawks place their perfect record on the line against the Riptide on Sunday at 3pm ET on ESPN+, TSN.ca and the TSN app.