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PRESTIGIOUS JR. NLL TOURNAMENT AN ANNNUAL SUMMER HIGHLIGHT

If you watched any part of this past weekend’s Jr. NLL Tournament, then you know the future of the National Lacrosse League is safe.

The 9th annual tournament, hosted at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre in Oakville, saw 32 teams (about 450 players) in three divisions (U13, U15 and U17) playing from Friday-Sunday for a chance at a prestigious championship.

Thirteen of 15 NLL franchises sent teams to the tournament, which has grown every year since its inception.

“More teams are coming, better teams are coming, but the one thing that stays the same is that everybody’s having fun,” said Colin Doyle, a director at the TRAC and coach with the Rock’s junior program. “They take pride in playing for their pro team. It’s such a great version of lacrosse; it does the NLL so much justice to see the kids play it.”

Hosted by the Toronto Rock, the three-day event pits the best of the best from each team’s junior program against one another. Games are two 20-minute periods, running time. The talent and skill on display, even from the U13s, is remarkable.

Ethan O’Connor coached the championship-winning U13 Bandits.

“This is an elite tournament for a reason,” O’Connor said. “The kids are doing stuff that I never even would have thought to do when I was a kid. There are a lot of future stars in this league. It’s jaw dropping. Even the stuff that you can only think about, they can already do.”

The U13 Bandits trailed 6-1 at halftime of their championship game vs. the Rock, but rallied in the second half for an 8-7 victory to defeat the home side. Madex Schindler had four goals.

The kids were so excited to receive the championship trophy they took it for a victory lap around the floor.

“Toronto is a very good team, very well coached and they were able to capitalize on mistakes we made,” O’Connor said, sounding very much like any pro NLL coach. “We had to drill in our guys: Play the way that got you here. The moment’s not too big for you guys. They ended up focusing and re-centering themselves and one goal led to another and the momentum shifted in our favour.”

The Rock have the benefit of playing on their home floor, and made it to all three championship games for the second consecutive year.

But after the second final of the day was completed, the Rock were still without a title after the U15s fell to the Roughnecks 11-6. Bryder Ibsen scored five goals to lead Calgary to the win, and goaltender Charlie Graham made 22 saves, the most of any goalie in the finals.

“We’d love to win it at every level but a fantastic Calgary team comes in and whoops us and you gotta tip your cap at a great Buffalo team,” Doyle said. “It’s great to see everybody winning. I know that’s what’s going to grow this. I’ve loved the NLL as long as I’ve been around so this is great to see.”

The U17 Jr. Rock celebrate their Jr. NLL championship win. (Photo: Rueben Polansky)

The Rock finally got their win at the U17 level, defeating the Rochester Knighthawks 10-7 in a tight battle that Rochester led early. Nate Renaud led the Rock with four goals and three assists and goaltender Jesse Morrison made 20 saves.

Though the Knighthawks lost, they were named the Gatorade Team of the Tournament for their dedication to the game and hard work throughout the weekend. The excitement and pure joy when told they had been selected was palpable.

Doyle was happy the Rock pulled off the U17 win.

“What a great Rochester team we played,” he played. “It took everything to beat them and the guys showed up and played out. They deserved this championship. Congratulations to the boys – and girl – that played with us.”

The girl he referenced is Vienna Twomey, who contributed two goals and five assists in the tournament.

Though the tournament is mostly made up of boys, the number of girls joining NLL junior programs increases each year. Doyle’s own daughter, London, was a member of the U15 Rock.

San Diego’s Parker Saari battles for a faceoff against Colorado’s Pick Meehan in U15 Jr. NLL action. (Photo by Ryan McCullough / Toronto Rock)

The U15 San Diego Seals got a big tournament from Parker Saari, who had a goal and three assists in their five games. Parker was the team’s primary face-off woman and she did a good job winning ball back to her teammates.

Parker said that she doesn’t practice faceoffs specifically, but found that after she started taking them in games, she was pretty good at them.

Being the only girl on the team isn’t always the easiest, but Parker said she enjoys playing with and against the boys.

“Playing with the girls is fun but its more intense with the guys,” she said. “They’re really nice. I played last year with all guys. That was interesting. This year is better. They’re nicer.”

She also enjoys playing for coach Cam Holding.

“I really like Cam as a coach because he’s very positive and wants us to do well,” she said.

“Parker Saari is one of a kind!” praised Holding. “She has the best personality and has a work ethic that is contagious to players around her.”

Holding said that his teams had a blast at the tournament, and the parents loved it as well.

“The TRAC is an amazing facility, and our players always learn how important the fundamentals are to a team’s success. They are also challenged to continue learning the IQ of the box game as it is those little things that set teams apart.”

Joe Resetarits and Grady Putek react to their longest shot win. (Photo: Kevin Sousa)

Only four teams from each division made it to the final day of the tournament for the semis and finals. For everyone else, the tournament wrapped up on Saturday night with a skills competition. For each category, a junior player was paired with one of their NLL coaches.

The U13s competed in the longest shot category, which was won by the Joe Resetarits and Grady Putek of the Philadelphia Wings. The U15s did the accuracy competition, won by the Rochester Knighthawks – Brad Gillies and John Burrows combined to hit eight targets in the fastest time.

The U17s tried their hands at the hardest shot category, won by the Buffalo Bandits. Spencer Jonathan clocked a shot at 85 miles per hour while Dalton Sulver clocked a shot at 105 mph for a combined score of 190.

Throughout the day there was an outdoor vendor’s village to provide extra fun, with a barbecue, ice cream truck, merchandise sales and games including an inflatable target shooting and a dunk tank.

NLL