A new season is dawning and plenty is new in the camp of the Toronto Rock. While Matt Sawyer and Paddy Campbell return to their roles with the National Lacrosse League team’s coaching staff, change is the rule: John Lovell has moved up to become the head coach, Blaine Manning has taken over as offensive coordinator and Dan Ladouceur is in charge of the defence. IL Indoor spoke to all three of the men in new positions after the Rock’s first practice for the 2014 season on Saturday at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre. One thing that all three agree on is that the team that finished first overall in the 2013 regular season but lost in the opening round of the playoffs doesn’t need to make a lot of changes, but it needs to be better than it was last year.
Lovell was impressed with how hard the players worked in the Saturday practice and thought the players generally looked like they were in pretty good condition. It’s a big camp, with 33 players invited to have a shot at making the team. “We didn’t know how our numbers were going to be in terms of the guys coming back,” Lovell said. “And we decided a long time ago that a rookie camp may be a good way to go about this in the beginning just to see if there were some people that might have a chance. And we did a lot of scouting this summer. So to be fair to those guys that worked hard and came through our rookie camp, we wanted to give six or seven or eight of those guys an opportunity.”
Lovell said the veteran players who decided to come back for another year were a factor in bringing so many players to camp, especially compared to Minnesota. The Swarm practiced before and after the Rock on Saturday and invited just 26 players to camp, choosing to focus on building chemistry rather than selection. “A team like Minnesota, I think they were pretty set in who they had,” Lovell said. “If you look at some of their older guys, if they had any, opted not to come back, where we have some guys who still want to play. So I know some teams have started with smaller camps.
“Does that put us at a disadvantage? Maybe in terms of that we’ve got to make some decisions quickly and in a short period of time. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity for guys. We’re trying to keep an open mind for our roster and it’s a nice opportunity if they want to play in this league.”
Manning, who just retired from the sport after the 2013 season, certainly didn’t seem to be regretting his decision to trade in his gloves for a whistle. “I’m happy I’m done playing after seeing those guys work. The game’s getting a lot faster. The guys looked really good for the most part and man, the game’s getting fast,” he said.
Given the amount of talent in the Rock’s camp, it won’t be easy to decide which offensive players to keep on the roster, Manning said. “Everyone that’s out here is a real good lacrosse player with NLL experience except for one guy who we really like. So it’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure. Hopefully guys start putting some room between other guys during the exhibition games and stuff. The onus is on them to get noticed and do a good job to make the team.”
For the first practice, Toronto spent about 45 minutes “doing a lot of flow stuff,” Manning noted, and you can’t really see much to help you decide who deserves to make the team from that. Things started to be visible in the scrimmage that took up the final half hour of the practice, and players will have chances to make their case on the floor as camp progresses. “I think on Tuesday we’re going to have a lot of battle drills and then the exhibition games, that’s kind of where guys are going to be able to separate themselves,” Manning said.
Ladouceur agreed with his colleagues that the team doesn’t need to be torn apart and rebuilt after last year’s playoff disappointment. “There’s not a whole lot of wholesale changes to be made. John and I have talked about the system that we want to run. You know, we keep calling it systems and putting labels to stuff, and that’s really not what we’re doing. There’s guiding principles and things that we want to enforce and be better at,” Ladouceur said. “It’s going to be maybe a matter of some different voices holding people accountable in different ways.”
One thing he’ll be looking for is a player or players to take on some of the leadership role that was lost when Cam Woods announced his retirement shortly before training camp opened. It will be a matter for some players of stepping out of their comfort zone.
Ladouceur acknowledged that moving up to coaching the Rock after stints with the Junior A Whitby Warriors and CLax Toronto Shooting Stars takes him out of a comfort zone as well. “Coming back here, I haven’t been around these guys, I haven’t been around this structure, these expectations, this amount of accountability. So it is a big step outside of a comfort zone. But at the end of the day, it’s a great opportunity. So you can either look at it as pressure, being out of your comfort zone, or opportunity to be pushed out and achieve more.”
Early in camp, the coaches haven’t given the players a lot of direction in terms of what they’re looking for, Ladouceur says. “We’re just looking at some of the innate habits of the guys and their tendencies. I think what we want to accomplish is going to be fairly easy to mold into what we want the guys to be doing. A lot of good habits out there. We just want to be a real physical team and there was a lot of good battles out there today.”
Rock camp continues each Tuesday and Saturday for the next few weeks, with exhibition games scheduled each of the next three Saturday evenings.Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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