2006 Men's World Championships Team Canada 2006 - Can They Win at Home?
By Ted Montour
The Aussie women did the "impossible" but all the insiders predicted that the fete was not only possible, but probable for the not so Cinderella team. While few are calling a 2006 Canadian victory at home over the US juggernaut probable, the word impossible hasn't surfaced either.
The conventional wisdom in the Canadian lacrosse community since the inauguration of the Men's World Lacrosse Championships has been that the Canadian offense is consistently ready for prime time, while the defense is gradually getting better and will eventually be good enough to win the gold. Canada's 2006 offense will feature the greatest player of all time in what will likely be Gary Gait's last World Games inside the lines. On one attack unit, he is joined by two of the greatest offensive players of the modern game in John Grant, Jr. and Tom Marachek. Whether the Canadian nationals are good enough to win the 2006 ILF Championship in London, Ontario, we won't know until the final whistle. But we know now that with the addition of the best new defenseman on the planet, Brodie Merrill, the Canadian D has taken a big step forward. They'll need quite a stride in order to stop the Powell Brothers led, star-studded scoring machine that is Team USA.
Team Canada Head Coach Frank Nielsen, in what he has described as the toughest selection process ever, has assembled a 23-man roster that includes 16 players with NCAA experience, including the recent Hall of Fame inductee Gary Gait, and All-Americans like Brodie Merrill, Gavin Prout, A.J.Shannon, John Grant Jr., Tom Marechek and Jeff Zywicki.
Let's scroll through this line-up and assess the sum of all their parts.
In goal will be an E-Lacrosse favorite; former Virginia Cavalier and '98 All World selection Chris Sanderson and recent Cornell grad Kyle Miller. Sanderson was looking for an MLL job in '06 to fine-tune his game for next July. He was drafted last week in the supplemental draft by Gary Gait and the Baltimore Bayhawks where he'll get good workouts and a litmus test competing for time with the USA's All-World keeper and the MLL's best in 2005, Trevor Tierney. Miller is a star on and off the field, having overcome the ultimate medical red-shirt, cancer, to return to the Big Red line-up and finish his career in Corning NY.
The play of the poles will determine how the Canadians fare against the perennial World champs. Vets Tom Phair (Delaware) and Steve Toll (RIT) are joined by youngsters Brodie Merrill (Georgetown), Taylor Wray (Duke) and Matt Vinc (Canisius), plus NLL stalwarts Andy Turner (Knighthawks) and Jim Moss (Stealth). Merrill is coming off a Rookie of the Year season with the Bayhawks, and was also the NLL's No. 1 overall draft pick, by the expansion Portland Lumberjax. According to Coach Nielsen, "Our primary poles will be Merrill, Moss, Phair, Toll, Turner, Vinc and Wray, but … some of these guys can play both short and long stick, … Moss, Toll, Turner could play middie also." Nielsen also indicated that final decisions on who will be playing long and short-stick will be made at next year's final camp.
The final tune-up next spring/summer will also determine midfield combinations. The middies are for the most part young and fast, and Nielsen says that he plans on a mix of "goal scorers and primarily middie defenders, [and] … a balance of speed and goal scorers on every line". Ryan Marshall (Duke) was selected for the '05 North-South All Star game. Ryan Ward (Butler) holds the single-game-points record, and tied Mike Regan's single-game-goals mark, with the Bulldogs. Geoff Snider (Denver) ranked in the national Top 20 in face-offs and ground balls last spring in his senior year with the Pioneers. Loyola All-American Gavin Prout is an All-Pro and former first-round draft pick (NY Saints, 1st overall) with both the NLL Mammoth and the MLL Bayhawks.
A.J. Shannon is another NLL (Buffalo) and MLL (New Jersey, now Rochester) first-rounder, who captained the Virginia Cavaliers to their 9-7 NCAA Championship win over Johns Hopkins in 2003. Steven Hoar, a two-time All-Canadian with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, will handle most of the face-off duties, as he does for the NLL Rochester Knighthawks. 2005 double MVP Colin Doyle of the Toronto Rock is the most prominent NLL pro, along with Sting'er Chris Seller, Knighthawk Shawn Williams and Bandit Billy Dee Smith. In fact, Nielsen says that, starting with Doyle, "five other middies may see some attack", and I would think that group includes Shannon, Prout and Williams for sure, and possibly Ward and Marshall.
Only four attackmen are listed as such, but what a quartet it is. Mammoth and Bayhawk skipper Gary Gait, and Orange and Bayhawk teammate Tom Marechek, both of whom missed the '02 Worlds, are joined by '02 Worlds scoring leader and former Delaware Blue Hen John Grant Jr., and Jeff Zywicki, another '05 North-South All Star from the UMass Minutemen, drafted 8th overall in the NLL by San Jose.
So, after losing the "greatest game ever" in 1998's final and the embarrassment of 2002's Perth showing, does Team Canada have the parts needed to win a World Championship?
GOAL: It is '02 All World Trevor Tierney and '98 All World Sanderson in goal, with no clear advantage here if they each were to play their best game.
DEFENSE: Canada has its best group of long-sticks ever, headlined by Merrill who dominated for the Bayhawks in front of Tierney. Toll may not be quite the "speedin' Stevie" he once was, but he can still key the fast break. Among the close defenders, Phair brings savvy and experience, Wray and Vinc make their first bows on the World stage, while Turner and "the Axe" Moss bring some pro box-style muscle and grit. Will they be enough to handle three Powell's, plus Boyle, Urick and young Terp Joe Walters? "With difficulty !!!" is how Frank Nielsen put it; Canada's 'poles can contain, but not shut down these guys, and must count on their D-middies to help by denying them the ball.
MIDFIELD: The firepower is pretty balanced, but there are some question-marks. Colin Doyle, for all his accomplishments and power-forward dominance in the box, will be the slowest middie on the pitch. However, as Frank Nielsen accurately observes, "Doyle is in the top few in the [indoor] game … that can cut through the middle and receive a pass and get a quality shot …, get hit and get back up and do it again the next shift … in the outdoor game you can't touch him 'til the ball's in his stick … [he] should be tough to stop off the ball!"
ATTACK: Up front, Gait and Grant more than make up in stick wizardry what they might give up in speed, and Marechek is still "Hollywood" whenever he touches the ball. Both contended all summer for the MLL League MVP award and the league's lead in scoring. Gait pulled away from the field at the end, but as the coach of the Bayhawks, he voted for his player Maracheck instead of himself. As a result Gait tied with Boston's Mark Millon and had to share the honor. Zywicki is sneaky quick, he always gets to the right spot at the right time and, with hands that made him the UMass back-up tender on a roster with just a starter, he can finish with anyone.
THE LATEST: Including Chris Sanderson, six members of the team were selected in the recent MLL outdoor pro expansion draft. Rochester selected Shawn Williams in the 7th round and one cycle later nabbed Stephen Hoar. Steve Toll went to Chicago in the 8th. San Francisco drafted Jim Moss in the 9th round and Billy-Dee Smith in the 15th. The success of these 6 in making, playing for and impacting the pro American teams early next summer will be the best barometer of the Canadian team's depth on an outdoor field.
PUNDITRY: As to the outcome, I make no prediction, but I plan to have a good seat for the championship contest. I'll give Frank Nielsen the last word here. "Since I've been head coach of Team Canada (1995) I believe the team has improved athletically as well as [in terms of] talent, but … our longpoles have improved the most … this is the best group of defenders Canada has ever had, but only time will tell".
That's 'Canajun' for "I'm pretty confident in this team."
The 23 players for the 2006 Canadian National Team are:
Colin Doyle, Gary Gait, John Grant Jr., Stephen Hoar, Tom Marechek, Ryan Marshall, Brodie Merrill, Kyle Miller, Jim Moss, Tom Phair, Gavin Prout, Chris Sanderson, Chris Seller, AJ Shannon, Billy-Dee Smith, Geoff Snider, Steve Toll, Andrew Turner, Matt Vinc, Ryan Ward, Shawn Williams, Taylor Wray, Jeff Zywicki
The 2006 World Championship will be hosted by London, Canada in July 2006.
Photos from Tim Hobbs and E-lax staff
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