Dynasty is a powerful term, but there’s no other way to describe what’s taking place on the Genesee River.
The Rochester Knighthawks made history Saturday night, winning the NLL Champion’s Cup for a record third straight time with an unthinkable three-goal rally in the last two minutes, 14 seconds of the ten-minute tie-breaker mini-game they forced by beating the Calgary Roughnecks 16-10 in the second game of the championship series.
After losing the prior weekend 10-7 to the Roughnecks on the road in Alberta, the Knighthawks managed to overcome a pair of two-goal deficits through the first and second quarters Saturday night to seize a 7-6 lead at halftime and a 10-9 lead after three periods and then blew that out to 16-10 lead in an emotional contest played before a wild crowd at the Blue Cross Arena.
In the wake of the victory — the Knighthawks’ fifth NLL title and fourth since 2007 — Rochester clearly stands as the class of the professional box world, a team that has changed, apparently for the better, each of the last few seasons.
“Every year it’s not the same,” says owner Curt Styres. “Every time you move, a billion other things move, and so it’s never the same year after year. We have to change, and your players have to be honest with themselves to see if they are changing with the times, because today’s not the same as yesterday.”
The Knighthawks are emblematic of Styres’ perspective. Making some of most talked-about trades and other personnel moves in the last five years, Rochester’s coaching staff and management has been committed to Styres’ “player acquisition plan.”
2014 scoring champion Cody Jamieson, Champion’s Cup MVP Dan Dawson, Craig Point, Stephen Keogh, Matt Vinc and captain Sid Smith — all players Styres and his staff targeted and successfully acquired within few-year window — were each instrumental in the win over the Roughnecks, a team that came on strong late in the season and downed the high-powered Edmonton Rush in the West Division Finals. It’s a roster that’s been strategically constructed over the last four years, with many of the core players signed on for the long haul via multi-year deals.
Building the roster included trading away the likes of John Grant Jr., 2013 NLL MVP Shawn Evans and Shawn Williams, decisions many questioned at the time. But Styres and Rochester were doing what they believed was necessary to get players that fit into their plan.
“I’ve watched players over the years and I’ve monitored their performance on how they conduct themselves,” Styres said. “I try to do that with our coaching and training staffs too. It’s well beyond man’s personal life. There are so many different avenues you have to look at.”
Styres pointed out after the win that the players are only part of the “equation.”
“Our players always joke about how we’ve got 24 players and 48 suits,” said Styres, who purchased the Knighthawks in 2009. “Everyone is there for a purpose and a reason and everybody has special quality. Just like with athletes, you have someone who can run, someone who jump, someone who score. With our staff, everyone has a unique characteristic about them, and that is key to success.”
One of the traits Dawson saw in Knighthawks players and coaches this season was “resiliency.” He said no matter the scenario, Rochester tried to keep cool and remain confident they would prevail.
“It’s kind of eery actually,” said Dawson, who won his second title alongside his brother, defender Paul Dawson. “You look at our bench sometimes, and there’s no helter skelter. Guys aren’t panicking. We stick to the game plan and we believe in everything the coaching staff feeds us. At the end of it, we believe that if we execute that, we’re going to be coming out on top.”
Rochester head coach Mike Hasen said his team tried to eliminate the term “three-peat” from their vocabulary this season.
“That’s never been a part of our dressing room right from the get go,” said Hasen, who now as three titles in four years at the helm in Rochester. “It’s always been about working hard. Results come from hard work. That was our focus. Just going out there and playing 60 minutes and trying to get a chance to play another ten. That’s all we did. … It was moment to moment and we played well and now we can enjoy the three-peat. So we can talk about it now.”
After the fact, there’s no diminishing the significance of back-to-back-to-back NLL titles. The Knighthawks were only the second team to even have the opportunity to capture three straight victories since the Champion’s Cup was first introduced as the league’s championship prize in 1998.
After hoisting the trophy in in 1999 and 2000, the Toronto Rock went for the three-peat in 2001, only to fall 9-8 to the Philadelphia Wings. The Rock would go on to win the Champion’s Cup in 2002 and 2003, making five consecutive appearances and winning four times — the last time the NLL saw a team worthy of the “dynasty” moniker.
Going back deeper into the history of the pro box lacrosse league, the Buffalo Bandits and the Philadelphia Wings both reached the league finale from 1992 to 1994, with the Bandits taking the first two and the Wings winning in 1994. A team remembered as one of the very best, the Wings went on to capture the title in the following season. But Philadelphia, reaching an astounding fifth straight championship in 1996, would lose to Buffalo 15-10.
It was clearly difficult in those days to win back-to-back titles in the NLL, with about 6.5 teams per season. It’s arguably more difficult now, with nine teams in the league and a greater depth of talent than ever before. In today’s NLL, the Knighthawks are the new model for consistency — at least when it comes to winning championships.
“They’re a good team,” said Evans, who was drafted by Rochester, spent five seasons there and was later traded to Calgary for the draft pick that brought Johnny Powless to the Knighthawks. “You don’t just win a couple years in a row for not being a good team.”
The team’s success, Styres says, helps strengthen another important element of his “equation,” and that’s a supportive fan base. As Calgary players and coaches indicated after the game Saturday night, the Blue Cross Arena has become one of the toughest venues in the league.
“The fans are the seventh man we always talk about,” Styres said. “Being the seventh man, you can do magical things. You can score a goal, you can stop a gaol. A lot of it has to do with the fans, the passion of the fans.”
Joe Walters, who starred at the University of Maryland before devoting himself to box lacrosse, hails from nearby Irondequoit and grew up watching Knigthawks games from the stands. On a day that saw each of the three Rochester area (New York State Section V) high school teams win their respective state quarterfinal playoff games, Walters said Saturday he hopes the success of the Knighthawks is helping fuel the area’s interest in the sport.
“I take great pride in being a Knighthawks,” Walters said. “I was a fan when I was a little kid, been coming to games since I was a little kid. … It shows that this is one of the hotbeds of lacrosse. It’s cool to see the high school teams succeed, I love seeing it. This is just awesome to share with them too.”
Sharing the Knighthawks success with fans is somewhat of a bonus for Styres, who seems to value the growth of lacrosse above all else. By building his organization on the backs of like-minded coaches and players, Styres believes he’s positioned the Rochester Knighthawks to be winners for years to come.
“We look at the people with a passion, the passion to grown the sport,” Styres said. “I know we can’t win every game, but what we can do is pass on our passion and grow this great game of lacrosse. With that mindset, you really never lose.”
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