Lacrosse players are — for the most part — modest and humble. Two reasons media hacks like me love interviewing them. Maybe it’s because they play for the love of the game — not millions of dollars — or that they appreciate the media coverage to grow the game and league and don’t look at is as a burden. Stealth forward and current NLL it-boy Cliff Smith is no exception. He’s the talk of the league right now after scoring 15 points in his club’s first pair of outings and helping them to a 2-0 start. He was ILIndoor’s second star of the week and one of my colleagues here pointed out at his current torrid pace, Smith is on track to break John Grant Jr.’s season-scoring record by putting up 120 points. It’s a funny little stat but when it’s pointed out to Smith, he quickly replies: “Let’s dial it back a notch,” he laughs. “We won’t be talking about that in three weeks.”
But right now we are. The soon-to-be 28-year-old (his birthday is Jan. 30) has been on fire to open the 2013 campaign. He scored three goals and added five helpers on six shots in the Stealth’s season-opening 13-12 win over the defending champion Knighthawks. He followed that with an encore performance by scoring four goals and seven points on 11 shots in 17-13 win over the Mammoth Saturday.
As impressive as his league-leading goal and point totals is the fact he’s got a lofty 36% shooting percentage. One would think the 6-foot-3, 200-lb. Smith would be on Cloud 9 right now? Before these two tilts, his career game-high was three goals and five points that came in a game against Philly back on Jan. 23, 2010.
“It feels good, but saying that it’s only been two games,” said Smith, who repeats that ‘it’s only been two games’ mantra a handful of times during our interview. “I’ve had some lucky bounces and stuff, too … but the best part is we’re 2-0 and we were 0-2 last year.”
When pointed out it’s OK for him to enjoy the moment — not many guys score eight points in a game in this league, let alone 15 over two games — he relents a bit.
“That is true,” said Smith. “But the last thing I want to be is the guy who had two good weeks and (wasted) the next 14 games. I sure don’t expect to put up seven or eight points every game. But I want to consistently help the team where it’s needed.”
Smith has had a tumultuous tenure in the NLL. Drafted fourth overall by Colorado in 2009, he’s struggled through injuries that have hampered his play. He spent a season-and-a-half with the Mammoth before being dealt to the Stealth. Smith appeared in just seven games last year and tallied three goals and four helpers for the Stealth last season before suffering a season-ending broken scapula.
The Surrey, B.C., product had collected 23 goals and 44 points in 33 NLL regular-season games coming into this season and three goals and five points in three playoff tilts. His WLA numbers have been more impressive. He’s played 61 regular-season tilts and 62 playoff games with the New Westminster Salmonbellies, racking up 175 regular season points (86g, 89a) and 186 playoff points (90g, 96a).
While discussing his struggles in the NLL, Smith admits he had lost some of his passion for playing. He didn’t feel he was producing like he was being paid to and it upset him (wow, that’s refreshing. Scott Gomez — did you hear that?). But recovering from last season’s injury and not playing summer ball firmly refocused him on the game and striving to live up to his potential.
“I don’t want to be Big Country Reeves,” said Smith, of his high draft status and minimal impact in the NLL. “You take some time off and then go into camp and it’s just a different mentality. I didn’t play for 10 months … I was so pumped. I was so excited to play every week.
“I don’t want to make it sound like a rebirth,” he explained. “But it’s really easy to go the gym right now and go to the rink … it’s hard to explain. I just feel so fired up and so excited.”
Playing offence with guys such as Athan Iannucci, Rhys Duch and fellow lefty Lewis Ratcliff sure makes the game a lot more fun, too. It helps give him a little more open floor.
“You don’t have to sugar coat that,” said Smith. “The doubles definitely come a little slower (to me) than certain other guys on our team.
“It definitely helps when you have guys that are the focus. On the other hand, it’s our job to chip in so they can’t just focus on them entirely. We had issues with that last year when some of us weren’t able to do our part to give them more room to operate.”
So does he feel he’s finally rounded into form? He’s ready to show the NLL what he can really do?
“I don’t think I want to make too much of a comment on that after only two good games,” said Smith. “There’s a lot of season left.”
Not only did Shawn Evans lead the Riggers in scoring Saturday night, he also stepped between the pipes of an open net late in the game and made a save. He can score, fight and play goal! He gets heat for all the chirping he does on the floor but that’s one tough player … With all the big names on Toronto’s attack, it’s easy to see how Kasey Beirnes’ name can get lost in the mix. He scored three Saturday — including the two late ones that put the nail in the coffin of the Riggers. His importance to the Rock attack can’t be overstated … Everyone knows what an amazing setup man Josh Sanderson is. However, he’s one of the most accurate outside shooters in the game. He’s not a big guy and has a feeder’s pocket, yet still snipes on outside shots … All the extra attention didn’t seem to faze Kevin Crowley. The undisputed centrepiece of the Wings attack scored four goals Friday and got off 16 shots … Nice return to the NLL for Nick Patterson. He made 43 saves on 56 shots in Washington’s win over the Mammoth … Speaking of that game, not a good start for Chris Levis and Matt Roik to silence their critics. Many pundits figured Colorado could suffer with weak goaltending this year. In the first outing of the season the pair allowed 17 goals in a loss … Rush draft pick Curtis Knight scored a hat-trick in his first NLL game — all on the powerplay. Special, indeed.
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