March 6, 2013

Stealth Look Like NLL Comeback Team of Year

by Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com

Rhys Duch is third in the league in scoring with 57 points and the Stealth are 6-4 and in first place in the NLL's West Division.
© Henry Valentine/Stealth

Lewis Ratcliff remembers it well.

It was May 15, 2010, and he was standing on the green Comcast Arena carpet holding his son while celebrating a 15-11 victory over the Toronto Rock that had just earned Ratcliff and his Washington Stealth the NLL championship.

''That was our first year in Everett and the arena was packed,'' he recalls. ''It was unique. I had my son out there and he was just a year and a half old so he was trying to figure out what lacrosse was all about.''

It's about winning, of course, and Ratcliff, who was MVP in that title game after a five-goal performance, wants to again have the experience of hoisting the Champion's Cup.

''That's the goal every year,'' he said. ''We went to the final twice in two years and struggled last year so everyone is focused to get back. When you get some success, you want it every year. The season is pretty much a failure if you don't make it to the championship game. We're in a good position now to make a run and hopefully we'll be there again.''

The Stealth are 6-4 and first in the West Division, making them the comeback team of the year if votes were cast today. After being the only team to miss the playoffs in 2012, they've turned things around impressively. Staying healthy has helped.

''Last year was a combination of a bunch of things,'' said Ratcliff. ''We lost a bunch of key guys for a number of games last year and we spent part of the season without our coach and captain. Things just started off wrong and spiralled, and the league is too tight not to be playing less than full capacity. We had a lack of confidence and played poorly.''

The flipside of that is what is happening now.

''It's a great feeling right now,'' said Ratcliff. ''We've got a great group of guys. We got rid of some guys who had been there for a while, which felt strange at first, but we're one big group now instead of a few little cliques. That goes a long ways, when everybody likes each other and wants to play for each other.''

Rhys Duch leads Stealth scoring and is third in the league with 57 points (26 goals and 31 assists). Athan Iannucci had a four-goal game last weekend and now has 20 goals on the season. Ratcliff has 17 while taking more shots on goal than any other player in the league.

He gives the team's defensemen and goaltender Tyler Richards much of the credit for the winning record.

''Our defense has been outstanding,'' he said. ''T Rich has been goalie of the year or maybe even an MVP candidate. He's been unbelievable every single game. The offense has been okay. We could shoot the ball better, myself especially. If I can get rolling and match the output of Duchy and Nooch and get us all firing at the same time, that'll help.''

Richards and Rochester's Matt Vinc have league-best .807 save percentages.

''I had a lot personally going on last season,'' said Richards. ''I was a bit distracted and not into lacrosse as I'd usually been.''

The particulars: he got married, he took on a house renovation, and his mom was battling cancer.

Now he's back to being one of the league's premier goalies, although he chooses to downplay his contributions.

''I'm just focused on putting wins on the board for the team,'' he said. ''Our defense is not giving up many high-quality chances and as a result I've been making a lot of fairly routine stops.''

Anybody who watched the 11-8 Stealth home win over Minnesota last weekend knows Richards made a lot of stops that were much more difficult than routine.

Striving for consistency is the key heading into the schedule's stretch drive.

''It starts with valuing the ball, making good decisions each time we have the ball,'' said Richards. ''Ball control, that's our focus.''

Washington is at Philadelphia on Saturday night in a showdown between two of the hottest teams in the league.

''I watched their comeback against Buffalo last week,'' said Richards. ''I don't think there is a team in the league as athletic as they are. We're going to have our hands full with Westervelt, Crowley and Hall. We're going to have to take our A game to Philly.''

Meanwhile, Ratcliff will have the opportunity to become the seventh player in NLL history to score 400 goals. He needs three.

''Being the seventh would be cool,'' he said. ''I plan on playing for some time yet and hope to get 500 but that's not my focus right now.''

The focus is on winning, which is something the Stealth are doing a lot more of this year than last.

Neil Stevens has covered pro and Canadian lacrosse since 1971. He and the late Tom Borrelli — a longtime Lacrosse Magazine contributor — are the only media members recognized by the NLL Hall of Fame.


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