It’s not as if a 3-2 record should ever be considered unacceptable, after all, the Saskatchewan Rush lead the NLL’s West Division with that record. But since the Rush started the 2014 campaign 14-0, their team has consistently shown some inconsistencies at the beginning of their schedule.
Including this year, in each of the last six seasons (except for 2018), the Rush have had a 3-2 record through their first five games. At that pace, the team would finish with a respectable 11 victories and seven losses.
Looking back over those last six seasons, that record would’ve been good enough to still win the West Division (except for 2016), but it’s not good enough for what this year’s Rush team is looking to accomplish, especially as they hope to avenge their first-round playoff loss last season to the Colorado Mammoth.
According to Ryan Keenan, it was that uncharacteristic loss to the Mammoth in the postseason that helped set this team back on track and has left the Rush unsatisfied with the way they’ve started this year.
“Last year was a tough loss for all of us,” Ryan Keenan said. “It’s not something this team has been used to in a while. It was a good wake-up call and opened us up to a lot of our issues throughout the entire year last year. I’m hoping [for the rest of the season] we get back that fire in our belly, that kind of mentality that we had in years past where we were winning championships.”
This year’s team has extra motivation to go out and perform because they fell far short of their ultimate goal a year ago. However, this season, even with that 3-2 record, Rush Head Coach Derek Keenan feels that his players have not lived up to the high standard that they imposed upon themselves.
“We’re 3-2. We’re in a good spot, but we know we haven’t played to our abilities and to what our expectations have been from day one,” Coach Keenan said. “A lot of it comes down to: we haven’t played hard enough, we haven’t played tough enough physically, we haven’t played tough enough mentally. You can’t just come in and expect that to happen; you have to make it happen.”
In fairness, the Rush haven’t had ample opportunities to make much happen because the fact is that the Rush have played only five games over the last 10 weeks – that is up to their West Division tie-breaking game against the Mammoth on Saturday night. And while it hasn’t been used as an excuse within the organization, the team has only had games on back-to-back weekends once so far this year, making it difficult to gain familiarity with their teammates and build a rhythm.
“It’s been different, it’s been an adjustment for sure,” Ryan Keenan said. “I think that when the schedule first came out everyone was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting’. We don’t want to make excuses, but it’s hard to get in a rhythm early in the year when you play one game then have a week or two weeks off like we just had. As the season wears on, it feels good to get into a rhythm.”
Starting with their final regular season game against the Mammoth this year, the Rush’s irregular schedule becomes far more regular – over the next 12 weeks, the Rush will play 13 games.
With the steady stream of upcoming games very much on their minds, as well as a demoralizing 12-6 loss at home to the Mammoth in their last contest, the Rush had a practice (two, really) a week ago that ended up being a couple of the best sessions in recent memory.
“Last weekend we had our hardest, most intense practice session we probably had in years,” said Coach Keenan. “Even in training camp you have to be somewhat careful. In training camp, you’re also playing a game that weekend – we had one week in training camp that we didn’t play. Last weekend we had two [practice] sessions in 24 hours. We went really hard, we were physical, we did a lot of running, we did a lot of system things and it was definitely one of the best sessions we had in years. Now we have to turn that into a good game performance on Saturday.”
Rush defensemen Travis Cornwall added that it was more than just the specific drills the team ran that made this practice special.
“The biggest thing was knowing that you didn’t have to play a game the next night,” Cornwall said. “Knowing we had a week off after practice, guys were going harder, playing a little more physically with the guys on offense when you’re playing defense, you don’t have to worry about gassing yourself before a game. We cut a lot of practices short during the season going about an hour and thirty or an hour forty-five, whereas last weekend we went a full two hours.”
Now that the Rush are warming up, does this mean that this team is destined to go on rampage around the league?
Saturday’s game versus the Mammoth has a lot riding on it. It may just be the first of their 13-game stretch to end the 2020 regular season, but if the Rush can get in a rhythm without any hesitation, they could be looking at a seventh consecutive West Division title and that would create a desirable postseason route to the championship match.