In the hours and days following the Buffalo Bandits’ 18-17 East Conference Finals Game One win against the Toronto Rock last Sunday, Bandits General Manager and Defense Coach Steve Dietrich received many apologetic texts and phone calls from his players. Yes, you read that right. The defensive unit understood that they are more capable than they played on Sunday and that a win does not dissolve them of any blame or guilt.
Despite the emotional, gritty home victory, Dietrich’s defensive leaders still felt remorse after letting their teammates down during one of the more consequential games they’ll play this season. As Captain Steve Priolo mentioned, sometimes that’s just how the lacrosse ball bounces. Sometimes, it will be the offense that picks the defense up, and that’s OK, as long as it doesn’t become a trend.
Historically speaking, there is no escaping giving up 17 goals in the NLL postseason. In fact, it was only the fifth time in the Bandits’ 30-year existence, and the first time since 2005, that the team allowed 17 or more goals in a postseason game – it was the first time in those instances where they actually won the contest.
Priolo pointed out one of the critical ways the Bandits were able to come away with so many victories this season as a whole, not just last weekend, is playing as much 5-on-5 lacrosse as possible. Believe it or not, the offense’s efforts on the floor play a considerable role here.
“It starts with ‘Vino’ [Matt Vinc], which we say time and time again, but it also goes back to our offense,” Priolo said. “The offense being disciplined, stopping transition against us, and giving us a chance to play 5-on-5 lacrosse is very important. When you’re playing 5-on-5, that’s when you can run your systems; now you can play your game.”
Playing within your system and playing the game you want to play is much easier said than done. It takes time to find the right players that are willing to buy into the system, and then it takes more time to build chemistry and trust between teammates so a team can flawlessly execute those systems.
Priolo stated that when the Bandits were allowed to get back together after the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a concerted effort to build an undeniable level of trust and chemistry that would hopefully beget success.
“When we came back from the pandemic, it was like, we’re all starting from scratch, and now we all have to be on the same page,” Priolo said. “We were one big unit again, but how were we all going to work together. When you’re playing defense, you have to put yourself in a position to be successful, and that only happens if you’re playing together.”
The collective defensive performances throughout the year proved the effort they put into building chemistry and trust, and it led the Bandits to much success this season. Not only did Vinc and the defense hold opposing offenses to under 10 goals eight times during the regular season, but their combined 185 goals allowed throughout the season was their fewest as a team since 2011, and that was a 16-game season.
Yet, no matter what the defense as a whole has accomplished, many players often get overlooked. Hard-nosed, well-executed defense isn’t highlighted nearly as much, unlike on the offensive side of the ball, where it’s easy to stand out with goals and assists.
Dietrich, who helped dictate defensives in between the pipes during his playing years, carefully crafted a defensive system where each player could shine individually and as a group. Now he’s built one of the most reliable defensive forces in all of the NLL.
“I don’t think they get enough credit,” Dietrich said. “Steve Priolo is our unquestioned leader back there – and he’s the one that does get mentioned, and rightfully so – but there’s a lot of unsung heroes back there. They just go out there to do their job, game in and game out, and never get recognized.”
Dietrich said if he had to single out a few of the publicly under-appreciated defensive players, he’d go with guys like Justin Martin, Nick Weiss, and Bryce Sweeting. It should be noted that Dietrich believes that all of the guys on the backend outside of Priolo and Vinc need to be talked about far more than they currently are.
Playing solid defense is far more than collecting loose balls and causing turnovers, always being in the proper position, fighting through picks, and being a physical presence are some of the intangible traits that Martin, Weiss, Sweeting, and the rest of the Bandits defense bring to the table every game.
It’s a complete showing of combining the best of all the tangibles and intangibles defensive traits that will give the Bandits a win this weekend and put the team into the NLL Finals. If there’s any text the defensive leaders want to send to Dietrich after this weekend’s game, it’s, “We did it. Now, let’s go win that NLL Cup.”