If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This is a principle of life that most of us are taught as we grow up. As adults in the workforce, there are few occupations where this idea applies more frequently, and with more consequence, than professional sport.
For lacrosse players, from that first moment a stick touches their hands until the day they retire, every shot thrown, every ground ball scooped up, every play run, every check made, every shot faced, is scrutinized until it can be perfected (or attempted to be) each and every time they step on the floor.
Growing pains regarding reaching this perfection will often be more frustrating to endure for the younger players in the NLL, particularly those who are part of youthful expansion teams that are trying to establish their identity and cement their place in this league.
The Rochester Knighthawks are one of the handful of newer franchises who have been on this journey of growth, learning and acceptance over the last two seasons. An essential bi-product of reaching newer heights in those aspects is winning, and winning lots.
In their inaugural COVID-shortened season in 2019-20’, the Knighthawks went 2-10 – those two wins were by one goal and the team never allowed less than 10 goals. Everyone knew turning this team into a contender was/is a work in progress, and, in the beginning, there was a lot to work on.
During their 16-7 victory on the road against the Albany FireWolves on Saturday night,
we saw the clearest example of how far the Knighthawks have come on those journeys since the team began to take shape in 2019.
Sitting at 2-1 in this 18-game season, the Knighthawks have positioned themselves to start being put in the conversation of playoff contenders, particularly after their performance this past weekend. Knighthawks Head Coach Mike Hasen understands that it will take many more efforts like that one to keep the rest of the league on their toes.
“That was our first complete 60 minutes where it seemed like everything was working the way we practiced,” Hasen said. “We did want to be a little cleaner in our transition game and making sure we’re getting that ball over the restraining line. But, that’s our expectation [to play a complete game], that’s the way we want to do it.”
Saturday’s game was the most complete product the Knighthawks have put together, but this team has been building up to that since even before training camp. Despite the lack of desired quality on the floor before the canceled season, the team remained focused on their plan to keep improving.
After five solid weeks together in the trenches of pre-season preparation, there were instant signs of promise on opening night. Many of the intangible aspects that Hasen and his staff had preached, such as effort and toughness, have been on full display.
“Through the first three games, we’re battling and we’ve been on the right side of two of the three battles,” Hasen said. “That’s good as far as the standings are concerned, but, as well as we’ve been playing, we’ve got a long way to go, and there’s still a long season ahead.”
Hasen is right to be hesitant just a sixth of the way through their season. But, the club did set a few franchise records on Saturday, so there is plenty to be happy with. This past weekend, the Knighthawks scored their most goals in a game while also surrendering the fewest goals they’ve ever allowed. On top of that, they had nine different goal scorers, which is also the most they’ve ever had.
The senior-most veteran on the squad, Paul Dawson, knows what success looks like. In his 15 seasons in the NLL, Paul has won two championships during his time with the league’s first rendition of the Knighthawks. Dawson mentioned that the results on the floor through December reaffirmed what he and the team believed they were capable of: being a threat in this league.
“This start we’ve had is promising,” Dawson said. “We thought we had a good team and now we’re starting to put it together. We’ve proven to ourselves [and others] that we do have a good team and we are going to be competitive.”
Dawson added that the offensive strategies put in place by Assistant Coach Mat Giles have given confidence to every player – experienced or not – that they can get in on the action.
“From the get-go, Mat Giles has been preaching that offensively we want that ball to stay hot,” Dawson said. “We don’t need one guy to score five goals. We don’t need one guy to be the superstar every night. We have many guys that can do that, but we are a team offense, and the proof is in the pudding that any one of our guys can go off. That’s what we want because then it’s harder for defenses when everyone can be a threat.”
This latest version of the Knighthawks was able to show that they are much more than a capable offense. Hasen noted that this team can be consistently reliable on defense, too, starting with the new man between the pipes.
Last week we learned that Evan Kirk will not be suiting up in net for the remainder of the season due to work commitments. Instantly, that opened up an opportunity for back-up goaltender, Rylan Hartley to regularly test his skills against the NLL’s best. Hasen believes that Hartley is ready for his moment to shine, even if it wasn’t the original plan for him to be the starting goaltender.
“[Hartley] knew that whenever he was going to get the opportunity to start, he was going to perform the way he did,” Hasen said. “He had a really good training camp with us and the good thing was that he got 10 weeks of mentorship from Evan [Kirk] – I think that went a long way. We know it was one good performance, but now we want to make sure he follows it up, just like the rest of our guys.”
The 23-year-old Hartley is in the majority of this youthful roster. All but five players currently on the Knighthawks roster are under 30-years-old. Yet, Knighthawks rookie Ryan Smith, the team’s first pick (third overall) in the 2020 NLL Draft, says that the veterans deserve lots of credit for preparing the young core to be competitive in the NLL.
“Although we have a young team, it’s the veterans who are really making a difference for us,” Smith said. “They really believe in our talents and what we can contribute to the team. The veterans are really building us up, giving us the confidence to go out there and just play our game, play within the team’s schemes to have overall team success.”
Because these Knighthawks are one of the younger groups in the NLL and are coming off of that 2-10 season, the veteran Dawson understands that the rest of the league still might not take this team seriously, and that’s fine with them.
“When you come back after nearly two years from not playing and back then you were a 2-10 team, I don’t expect anyone to give us any respect,” Dawson said. “Our team isn’t here to please the haters; we’re here to please each other and do what we want to do. We know who we have in our [locker] room, so keep doubting us if you want, we’ll prove you wrong.”
The best way for the Knighthawks to continue to prove any doubters wrong is to follow the formula that has brought them success so far. By keeping their heads down, they can continue focusing on being physically and mentally ready. This way, they’ll be able to achieve a full game of non-stop relentless action on the floor, much like last week.
Hasen knows that what fans saw on Saturday is still far from the perfect product they want the world to see. However, they will not stop practicing until they get to that result. Maybe then, the Knighthawks can truly consider themselves a playoff, and dare I say, championship contender.
“Making the playoffs is obviously a hope – hopefully, we’ll be playing a few extra games at the end of the year,” Hasen said. “But, again, we just want to compete and work hard for 60 minutes each week. That’s our focus.”
Their first attempt at this wasn’t ideal, but this second go around shows that the Knighthawks are doing more than trying, they’re succeeding.