May 15, 2011

Toronto Wins Title, Watson Goes Out a Winner

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com


"I'll cherish this for the rest of my life," Bob Watson told the crowd of 14,448 at the Air Canada Centre before heading to the dressing room a final time. Watson was named the NLL championship game MVP after making 46 saves in Toronto's 8-7 victory over Washington.

© Graig Abel Photography

TORONTO -- Nobody in the champagne-drenched Toronto Rock dressing room was more satisfied with the 8-7 Champion's Cup triumph over the Washington Stealth than general manager Terry Sanderson.

Goaltender Bob Watson was the hero, earning MVP honors in the last game of his pro lacrosse career Sunday afternoon, and the most demanding offseason task facing Sanderson is to fill what will be that huge lineup hole, but he'll savor this first.

''It's so rewarding to win with a bunch of guys like this,'' Sanderson said as he watched the new NLL champions pop corks. ''It's hard to put into words.

''I'm just so overwhelmed that we could play so well. We were almost errorless. Defensively, we were solid, and Bobby couldn't go out any better than what he did. Offensively, we controlled the game, even though the second half didn't show it because we hit lots of pipes.

''But the team itself, a lot of people told us we had some guys who were done, couldn't play in this league, and guys that were released early on and who came back and showed that they still wanted to play for the Toronto Rock. It means a lot.''

Toronto held quarterly leads of 3-1, 7-2 and 7-4.

It was 7-6 when Stephan Leblanc leapt into the crease and stuffed a ball behind Stealth goalie Tyler Richards with 6:59 left in the fourth quarter to make it 8-6. But just 13 seconds later, Paul Rabil ripped a sidearm bullet that knocked Watson down and continued on into the net to make it 8-7.

Washington had the ball with 30 seconds left and called time out to plan a last shot. A pass that Luke Wiles couldn't control put a loose ball in the stick of Rock defenseman Cam Woods, who killed the clock to get his first title in 12 years in the NLL.

''I was happy just to stick it up my shirt or down my shorts,'' Woods said. ''I was running like a chicken with its head cut off. I'd have run out to the parking lot if they had on kept chasing me.

''When the buzzer finally went, I was jumping around with the boys and I didn't have the energy in my legs to keep standing.''

Watson gestured to a section where some of the 14,448 standing spectators were cheering in Air Canada Centre.

''My family sits up there,'' Watson said afterwards. ''They've been supporting me for 15 years in Toronto sitting in the same spot, so my first look was to them.

''We were taking in the moment. I've enjoyed every minute of it. I'm going to miss it, but now I'll get the opportunity to sit up there with them and enjoy the games. There's a little less pressure up there, I think.''

Kasey Beirnes and Garrett Billings scored two goals each for the Rock and Leblanc, Blaine Manning and rookies Rob Hellyer and Glen Bryan got one each.

Toronto lost the 2010 final to the Stealth in the Seattle burbs, 15-11, when it was outscored 7-1 in the fourth quarter.

''We still had that bitter taste in our mouths from last year, so we really wanted to give it our all today,'' Leblanc said. ''Fortunately we were able not only to send Whip (Watson) out on a great note, but also gave some other guys the thrill of their lives.''

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When the time came for the presentation of the trophy, captain Colin Doyle sent two of those other guys, Woods and Biernes, to get it. The team had made a pact to win the title not just as a going-away gift to Watson, but for the veterans on the team who had never won a pro title.

''When you have a great group of guys like this, it's priceless,'' said 10-year vet Biernes.

Watson stopped 46 shots.

''I'll cherish this for the rest of my life,'' he told the crowd before heading for the dressing room for the last time.

Woods, Bryan, Stephen Hoar, Pat Merrill, Jeff Gilbert, Sandy Chapman, Creighton Reid, Rob Marshall, Kyle Ross, Phil Sanderson and Mike Hobbins comprised Toronto's defensive corps, and coach Troy Cordingley couldn't say enough about them.

''Our defense was phenomenal. We have so much trust in our defense,'' Cordingley said. ''They were so good, and when our defense did break down, how unbelievable is Bobby Watson? He's the best big-game player I've ever been around. He's unbelievable.''

Doyle, who like Watson celebrated his sixth title win in a Toronto uniform, called it an ''incredible game.''

''They made it real hard on us in the second half, but Whipper stepped up, and our defense played an incredible game,'' he said. ''They say defense wins championships, and that's the way it is with us.

''A lot of people wrote our defense off down the stretch, and I thought they and Bob stepped up and showed this team's backbone is defense. Man, am I ever proud how the guys stepped up to the task today. It shows what a resilient team we are, and I'm really proud of that.''


Rock defender Cam Woods contains Stealth forward Luke Wiles near the boards. Woods earned the first NLL title of his 12-year career.

© Graig Abel Photography

Lewis Ratcliff led the Stealth with three goals and Rhys Duch, Jeff Zywicki, Cliff Smith and Rabil got one each. Tyler Richards was every bit as good as Watson in making 49 saves. Had Washington pulled out a win to take the title the second year in a row, Richards would have been the game's MVP.

''First off, you've got to give credit to Bob Watson,'' said Richards, 17 years younger than Watson, in making a gracious exit. ''If I can play at 41 the way he did, I'll be absolutely thrilled.''

Nobody in the Stealth room had to guess why it failed to repeat.

''We didn't come out in the first half,'' said captain Jason Bloom. ''On what we did in the second half, if we'd come out that way at the start, it would be a different story.

''Bobby Watson was a heck of a goaltender during his career, and he showed today why he's one of the best of all time. He was the best player on the floor. They deserved to win.''

Washington coach Chris Hall watched his players make more mistakes than they had in mowing down Minnesota and Calgary in their previous playoff games.

''We didn't do a good job getting loose balls, and we turned the ball over too much,'' Hall said. ''The turnovers killed us, and Bob Watson made some miraculous saves.

''It was his night, and he was full measure for it.''

Toronto's last title win was in 2005. Current players Watson, Doyle, Manning, Chapman, Merrill and Sanderson were on that roster.

''What a way to go out for the Whip!'' said a jubilant Manning. ''To allow only seven goals in a championship game, he's outstanding.''

The six-year title drought was too long for the returnees from the 2005 squad.

''I'm extremely happy,'' Manning said. ''It's been a long time. I'm super pumped.''

Added Chapman: ''We hung in there at the end. Our offense had kind of a rough go in the second half, as their defense really stepped up. But Whipper was unbelievable. He's done it his entire career. He made the big save when we needed it. Thank goodness he did.''

The Rock's 2011 defensive corps was stronger than the 2005 edition, said Chapman.

''We relied so much on the offense back then,'' he said. ''The fact we only gave up seven goals in this game says a lot about our defense.''

Watson was presented with the hard hat that goes to each game's Rock first star.

''Whipper this, Whipper that -- get out of here,'' Doyle said in jest as he tossed the hard hat Watson's way.

Woods drank it all in.

''This is sweet,'' he said. ''I've been chasing this thing for 12 years, and to do this with this group ... and in Bob Watson's last year... I've had a lot of close calls [playing for championships] before and I could never really understand why. I know everything happens for a reason, and I figured if we could do it at home this weekend for Bobby and for our fans, then it would all make sense. We battled hard all year, and we're going to live this one up for a while.''

And there was Terry Sanderson enjoying watching his players get what they deserved.

''It's amazing how fast Terry and Troy turned this team around,'' Billings said.

Toronto missed the playoffs in 2008 and again in 2009, when Cordingley and Sanderson coached Calgary to a championship. New Rock owner Jamie Dawick hired them, Sanderson reacquired Doyle from the Stealth for Ratcliff, and the rest is history.

It seemed as if the accolades for Watson would never stop as the sun prepared to set.

''He's been the heart and soul of this organization since its beginnings,'' Leblanc said. ''We hate to see him go, but he's taking the high road. He's got kids, and he's at that age where his body is not as good as it used to be, although it definitely didn't show today. That's his decision. We'd love to have him back if he wants to come back.''

No such chance, even though his teammates begged him to stay with a heartfelt chant.

''One more year, one more year, one more year,'' they shouted as they stood in a circle around a table holding the Champion's Cup.

Watson will devote his full attention now to his one-year-old job of being a Kitchener-Waterloo policeman. He's bound for the NLL Hall of Fame, and the way he said goodbye leaves no doubt about that.

News and Notes

Washington was 1-for-4 and Toronto was 1-for-2 on power plays ... Watson finishes his career with a 16-4 all-time record in NLL playoffs ... Leblanc had a team-high three assists to go with his winning goal ... Duch and Cam Sedgwick each had three assists for the Stealth  ... Bobby Snider of the Stealth as 11-for-19 on faceoffs, while Hoar was 3-for-12 and Merrill 5-for-7 for the Rock... Toronto was credited with 10 forced turnovers to five by the Stealth ... Richards started a busy week. He was to fly home to Vancouver on Sunday night, and he had a Monday morning flight to Atlanta for a conference to do with his work with a collections firm. He'll be back in Toronto on Friday to fly to the Czech Republic to join Team Canada for the FIL world indoor championships in Prague, May 21-28.


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